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Chemistry Creates Bonds, Crosses Disciplines

Nearly Half of CC's Students Take a Chemistry Class

General Chemistry Professor Murphy Brasuel discusses the lab and how to extract liquid from a bran solution during a procedure that measures the amount of iron in different bran cereals.

By Laurie Laker ’12

The “liberal arts” have always encompassed the natural and physical sciences, and Colorado College is no different in featuring these disciplines at the forefront of its curriculum. In our classrooms across all eight and a half blocks, science is everywhere at CC – often right in front of you. Nearly 1,000 students take classes in the Department of Chemistry during any given academic year – around half of the student population of the college.

With the Block Plan, CC students dig deep on their very first day in class – for four hours plus afternoon lab work in the case of CH107, or General Chemistry 1 as it’s more commonly known. It’s a lot of work, but for the huge number of students who take this course, it provides a scientific foundation for their hugely varied academic journeys at Colorado College.

“On the Block Plan, the pace is incredibly fast and the workload especially time-consuming. We'd have to learn thermochemistry in the morning, perform a thermos lab that afternoon, then take a group quiz the next day,” says Vivian Nguyen ’20, of Texas. “I took general chemistry as a requirement for the neuroscience major, but I always had a passion for chemistry in particular so I was excited to take this class.”

Professor Murphy Brasuel ’96 has been teaching CH107 (General Chemistry 1) at CC for 13 years. He has had ample time to come to an appreciation of the versatility and applicability of the course across the disciplines at Colorado College.

“The range of students and their experiences, in this class, is really all over the map,” he explains. “While it’s mostly first- and second-year students, the challenge is to teach the material in a way that allows this massive range of student backgrounds to learn and thrive in my classroom.

“I equate this class to an introductory language class, where you’re learning the vocabulary and structure of a language – it’s the same with chemistry as a discipline; you have to learn the language.”

Introducing students to a range of terms, theories, and practices of the discipline, General Chemistry is one of the most frequently taught courses across the entire college.

Why? Simply put, it’s a required course for so many majors at CC.

“It’s a requirement for chemistry majors, biochemistry majors, molecular and organismal biology majors, geology majors, and neuroscience majors – that’s at least six majors right off the top of my head,” Brasuel clarifies.

The Department of Chemistry graduates anywhere between 16 and 24 seniors per year, making it one of the smaller majors at CC. That wouldn’t seem, at first glance, to mandate the class being taught so many times in an academic year. It’s the aforementioned multiple majors, as well as most medical schools’ pre-health requirements, that mean the department sees 800-900 students pass through its classes in any given academic year.

“We teach it nine times a year, the ninth time being one where it’s taught simultaneously by two professors,” Brasuel says. “It’s about the nomenclature of chemistry, how we balance equations, understanding how chemicals are transformed from reactants into products, how they bond, and interact.”

Embracing science is about being creative. If that sounds unconventional, that’s the point, though it is understandable that one can get caught up in the volume of content and miss the creativity.

“Once the foundation of knowledge is there,” Brasuel explains, “creativity comes in the pushing and understanding of natural boundaries, how things work, through the lens of chemical interaction.

“Chemistry gives us the ability to measure and engage with the world on a micro and nano level, to put together things you can’t see, to create new measurement tools for medicine, biological research, and so on.”

Such is the intensity of learning with CC’s Block Plan that students in the sciences, or the languages for that matter, often cover the semester equivalent of an entire week’s worth of material in a single day.

“Yeah, it’s intense! Our professor made sure to have us perform demonstrations as a fun escape from all the lectures and practice problems we had to do, like igniting thermite on the Olin yard,” says Nguyen.

The classroom is a quiet one. Not the quiet borne of disengaged students, but rather the quiet that comes with deep concentration. The sounds you hear are the clinking of beakers, the whirr of lab equipment, the whispers of students collecting and updating data.

They’re testing the concentration of iron in Kellogg’s All-Bran, a process that requires the pressurization, liquidation, and distillation of the chemical structure of the cereal. It’s the chemist’s way of checking the nutritional data.

It’s an experiment that comes with practiced intensity, vital for the specificity of the discipline. Brasuel is among the louder people in the room, bouncing from group to group, encouraging students, checking in on measurements, clarifying the lab for his students.

“Lab is tied to the lecture, demonstrations, and other course material to help students tie together a theoretical, quantitative, and practical understanding of chemistry. But oftentimes, before these aspects of the course can work together, the students need to become comfortable enough with each other to ask questions and to make mistakes on their initial solutions to problems,” Brasuel says.

“Lab work was always hectic, but exhilarating, to be applying the concepts we learned just earlier into the experiments we had to perform that afternoon,” says Nguyen.

“CC students don’t want to, aren’t used to, being wrong, and so part of the reason I switch up the groups as often as I do is to engage the students with each other, to get that comfort in making mistakes and asking questions,” Brasuel explains.

What is perhaps most important about the sciences at CC is that teaching is at the heart of the discipline. “Student-centered is who we are and who we should continue to be,” says Brasuel.

Nearly all science faculty do conduct research – Brasuel’s own research focuses on nano-level structure and design – but that work largely takes place over the summers, with student researchers assisting faculty members for the experience and publication opportunities.

“We want students coming here because we’ve got teachers here, not researchers who teach on the side,” Brasuel says.

“I’ve been really impressed with my peers and colleagues who engage in teaching courses like this one, and who value it as a really important part of what we do — giving students a foundation of knowledge regardless of their direction or focus here. It’s a really liberal arts mindset, the idea that all knowledge, all ways of knowing, has value.”