Posted 10:36 a.m. Friday, Jan. 20, 2023

Professor Heather Schenck, Chemistry & Biochemistry, is trying to make organic chemistry easier to understand through a new smartphone app.

There’s (soon to be) an app for that

Organic chemistry is at or near the top of many “hardest college courses” lists. It’s notorious for memorization and spatial complexity, as well as its high failure rate.

Professor Heather Schenck, Chemistry & Biochemistry, is trying to remedy some of these problems by developing a new smartphone app. Her app design won first place in the WiSys’ APPStart Challenge in December 2022.

Schenck says an early challenge for students is learning to draw a six-carbon ring in a perspective called the “chair.” The chair is hard to draw, she explains, because of its tricky formalisms: no horizontal or vertical lines, no carbon above or below another, three sets of parallel lines, and more. When bonds are drawn outward from the chair, the complexity increases so there are a dozen or more correct perspectives on a single molecule. Even worse, the chair is a flexible structure so most of these molecules have two different chair shapes, which interconvert and can differ in stability. Students may need to be able to draw both forms and assess their relative stabilities.

App helps with common learning problem

This figure shows three correct, equivalent views of a single chair.

Schenck says these issues compound to make an intractable learning problem — when a student tries to check the chair structure they drew against their Solutions Manual, at best they have a 1-in-12 chance of picking the same perspective that the author did. In this chemical catch-22, the student must know that their drawing is correct (and be able to recognize all other views of the structure) to be able to effectively check it.

Schenck is working to address the problem with the EasyChair app. The app, which will enable students to check their drawings and compare images, gives students a drawing tutor on their phone instead of simply offering them a fixed drawing to compare to that often doesn’t match the authors.

“EasyChair has the potential to reduce an early pain point in a challenging course for pre-health, chemistry and biochemistry majors,” Schenck explains. “It holds promise to motivate and engage students, so they are able to recognize and learn from any of their mistakes.”

Having taught organic chemistry for 16 years, Schenck knows it is hard in any language. That’s why EasyChair is being designed with minimal text, making it accessible to all learners.

Most organic chemistry professors still give paper exams and require students to draw chairs by hand. Existing educational software for organic chemistry offers videos and animations of chair structure movements, or chair templates with pre-set bond locations. Such programs are attractive gee-whiz technology, but their ability to help students learn to effectively draw their own chairs is debatable.

“EasyChair will be the first interactive program that can provide feedback on a student’s hand-drawn structure,” notes Schenck.

WiSys winner 

The EasyChair app won first place in the WiSys’ APPStart Challenge in December 2022 after being selected among three finalists for prototype development from a field of over 30 semi-finalists in WiSys’ challenge. The app is under construction and funding to complete it will be sought during 2023. Rollout is targeted for 2024. 

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