Organic Chemistry enrolls in the Magnet

by Brittany Cheng '13

Blair science teacher Megan Dieckman stands in the front of her classroom, surveying her fourth period class as they complete their first assignment of the new semester. The students were on their feet, scrambling and heavily intent on figuring out the solution to the puzzle. Their task: put together a set of pictures in order to make a story. The activity begins the second round of the new Organic Chemistry class, which was first piloted this past fall. According to Magnet Coordinator Peter Ostrander, both students and staff members expressed high levels of interest in the course. "We polled the graduating class of 2010, and Organic Chemistry was listed as a course they would have liked to have taken," he says. "Since both groups saw the need, we started the process to develop the course." However – as with any prospective class – there would be a long road until Organic Chemistry could be offered at Blair. Every idea starts somewhere Generally, Organic Chemistry is a college-level science course that is offered in many colleges and universities around the country. Despite rigorous instruction in the Magnet, many alumni wished they had learned more in high school, according to Dieckman. "The idea originated from Magnet student alumni who commented to previous teachers at Blair how rigorous Organic Chemistry is in college and wished they had more preparation," she says. As a result, Dieckman – in accordance with Juniata College, her alma mater – developed a course that would delve further than basic Chemistry topics spelled out in a traditional Chemistry curriculum; specifically, the class focuses on organic compounds, such as saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons. "AP Chemistry covers a wider variety of content," Dieckman explains. "The purpose of [Organic Chemistry] is to give students solid backgrounds that will help them succeed in college."

Since Organic Chemistry is a college-level course, Dieckman had to adjust the curriculum to fit high school students, but much of the structure was similar. She intends to cover many topics, such as the properties of molecules, mechanistic reasoning, molecular synthesis, nomenclature and spectroscopic data. According to the course description, the class's focus is "to understand how reactions occur using mechanisms and [to] apply this knowledge to solve how complex organic molecules are synthesized." Someone to lead After the curriculum and materials have been created, Dieckman was the obvious choice to lead the class, according to Ostrander. While her chemistry background is extensive, Dieckman's work with Blair's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) academy and track record made her the perfect candidate. "She was responsible for building up the Forensics program at Blair up to five sections and we wanted to tap into her ability to not only develop, but promote a course within the magnet," Ostrander says. Ostrander also explains that Dieckman opens a gateway for non-magnet students to be able to participate and enroll in Magnet electives. "We like the crossover between the STEM Academy at Blair and the Blair Magnet Program," he says. "By opening up select electives to strong science students at Blair, we are able to offer more options to students both in and out of the program."Getting the word out By the middle of last year, plans were finalized for at least one semester of Organic Chemistry class this year – as long as enough students enrolled. To promote the pilot class, Dieckman went to various science classes to pitch the idea to students, according to junior Albert Tang. "Last year, Ms. Dieckman was going around, advertising her [class] and talking about if you ever wanted to explore Biology or Chemistry in college, Organic Chemistry will probably be one of the classes you'll have to take," Tang recalls. Other students say that they either heard from their friends or discovered the newest class on their course lists before they signed up for classes. "I saw the class on the classes list last year when we were choosing schedules," junior Linda Kang explains.

After counselors tallied up the number of prospective students, they found the total was much higher than they expected: 59 – enough for two sessions of the course. Now, the class was ready for piloting.


Last fall, Organic Chemistry was introduced to a class of 31 students, according to Dieckman. "Last semester, students extracted cinnamaldehyde from cinnamon, synthesized indigo dye and synthesized wintergreen oil from aspirin," she says, naming a few lab experiments. She added, "Students [also researched] organic toxins and case studies." She plans for students to research how chemistry relates to a topic of choice (including, but not limited to perfume, paint and fuel) this semester.

Activities such as these are an integral part of Dieckman's teaching philosophy because they stimulate the minds of students and engage them in a meaningful manner. "My teaching philosophy is that 'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,' [which is a Chinese proverb]," she says. "I strive to make my class as engaging and interesting as possible through labs, current events and applications to other fields of study."

Dieckman believes that learning how things work is more important than memorizing cases. "[I'd like] students to understand why reactions occur. In doing so, students will not have to rote memorize reactions, which is a common complaint of college Organic courses," she explains.