Capping Off My Capstone: An Unconventional Chemistry Class

Neurochemistry at Concordia College was unlike any other science course I have ever taken. When most people, including myself, think of science classes, they think of a teacher standing in front of a room of unresponsive students lecturing about topics that are hard to see in a greater context while the students write down as much information as possible to memorize for an exam. Almost none of this occurred in CHEM 475. Neurochemistry was a very unconventional class in many ways, but in the end a fair amount of science, as well as other applicable skills, was learned by everyone, including the professor.

The first unconventional aspect of CHEM 475 was the structure. This class fulfills the capstone requirement to complete the core at Concordia College. The purpose of a capstone class is to be the, “arc of the Concordia Experience,” as said by the college’s president. Some main goals of Concordia’s core curriculum are to integrate writing into all classes and to invite student to become responsibly engaged in the world. These requirements might not seem to fit in with a neurochemistry class, but through the unconventional structure of the class, they definitely were met. There were very few days of actual lecture in this class. The first few periods were lecture simply to introduce the course and some basic background knowledge for the unconventional group of students in the class. Most upper level chemistry classes are strictly taken by chemistry majors only. But CHEM 475 was made up of students from chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and even psychology. The diverse group of students helped create a lively learning environment that perfectly housed the unconventional structure of the class. Like mentioned before, the class was not lecture based. Mondays were devoted to asking questions and discovering what we didn’t understand for the week’s assigned article. Wednesdays were designed for each student to teach a specific topic relating to the article to every other person in the class, including the professor. Fridays were spent discussing the week’s article as a whole. It was a time to put together the small topics discussed on Wednesday to help understand the article assigned for Monday and to see how each specific neurological disorder topic could fit into our lives and society in a new and well informed way. It gave us a day to develop our own ideas on the week’s topic so we could go back and spend the weekend writing a blog articulating what we learned to share it with the world on our online blog,

Along with the unconventional structure of the class came unconventional assignments. Each week were assigned an article relating to a different neurological disorder or concept. For Mondays, our job was to read the article and to write down things we didn’t understand. Usually when scientific articles are assigned in a class, the point is to summarize them or to learn some sort or concept, memorize it, and then be tested on it. This was not the case in CHEM 475. The point of reading the article was to pick specific confusing things, present them to the class, and to ask our peers to help understand them. This class was taught as a team, with each one of us, along with the professor, being an equal and important contributor to the learning of everyone. We all relied on each other for learning. We each did a small portion of research but ended up gaining a ton of knowledge through the help of our classmates. I had never thought to learn this way, but I think it was quite effective. The process of presenting my topic helped me understand it more. When a peer would ask me a question about my topic, I had to use my critical thinking skills to try to answer it to the best of my ability if it wasn’t something I had specifically researched. Sometimes asking questions can be intimidating for me. But asking another peer one on one was a lot easier and very comfortable. I also felt less awkward admitting I didn’t know the answer to a question to just one other person and not in front of the whole class.

The “exams” in CHEM 475 were just as unconventional as the assignments. For our exams, we were given a deconstructed version of a scientific paper with some basic facts and diagrams. We were then asked to use critical thinking and then piece together the puzzle of the molecular mechanism described in the paper using our knowledge of how mechanisms work. Then came the most important part. Analyzing our response in the form of a take home essay in order to evaluate our answer with the actual mechanism proposed in the actual paper. I definitely struggled with the first take home exam, but I was quite impressed with myself when my hypothesis for the second exam was actually pretty consistent with the mechanism presented in the actual paper. I think this was an awesome way to learn. It is very rare that we are the graders of our own assignments. Many times you simply take an exam, see your score, and move on to the next set of material. Not in CHEM 475. Evaluation of your own work was a huge part of the learning process. It caused you to actually think about what you wrote and why you thought it.

As a capstone course, this class was supposed to offer an opportunity for all students to build competence, creativity, and character through collaborative learning. I don’t think this sentence could have described CHEM 475 more perfectly. Collaborative is the perfect word to describe the learning that went on in this class. I wouldn’t know even half of the things I learned in this class without the help of my peers explaining specific topics to me. I would have never thought of many of the things talked about in large group discussions if I was to have expressed my opinions in some sort of paper. Learning in CHEM 475 happened as a team of equals, students who were equally confused, equally ready to learn, and equally ready to share our ideas, even if it did take some pushing at first. For me personally, competence was built because prior to this class I knew very little about neurochemistry and neurotransmitters. Creativity was built while piecing together information for take home exams. Character was built through being forced to be independent and take charge of my own learning rather than relying on a professor to spell everything out for me.

Some specific goals of the class were to identify basic properties of neurochemicals and their responses, describe mechanism of common intercellular signaling pathways, learn about neurogeneration and neurodegenerative disorders, and to translate scientific information into general terms for non-scientific audiences. I would say every single one of these goals was accomplished for me in this class. Seeing as I knew close to nothing about the brain and neurotransmission prior to this class, I definitely now know the basic properties of neurotransmitters. Could I tell you every single pathway we talked about this semester? Absolutely not. But I could tell you that THC might not be as bad as some people think, type 2 diabetes can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, lithium could possibly help treat Parkinson’s disease, the AKT/GSK3 pathway is involved in a ton of signaling, and many other important pieces of information from my semester in neurochemistry. Hopefully, my previous blog posts have proven that I can translate scientific information that myself and 20 other senior college students studying some sort of science could hardly understand into semi-simple ideas that non-scientists can appreciate. Science is cool and all, but if we can’t share it with the general public, it doesn’t do much good. To have a bunch of super educated individuals knowing about science is important, but translating that information to the greater general public is much more valuable.

How do I feel about this class as a capstone? Well to be honest, I was dreading this class. For three years I was planning to take Biomedical Ethics to complete my capstone requirement. Sadly when registering for classes in the spring of my junior year I was informed that class was no longer being offered. Being stuck needing a capstone to graduate, I signed up for CHEM 475. I thought I was unprepared in the class and was ready to feel lost the entire semester. Basically, I was right about both of those things. But I wasn’t alone in that boat. Many others were lost throughout the semester. Working together through our confusion led to even greater learning than we could have done on our own. In this class, we were responsible for the learning of our peers, we were the teachers, and we needed to pull our weight in order to help everyone else succeed. What a better way to become responsible engaged in the world than by taking personal responsibility for the learning of others. That is exactly what we did in CHEM 475. Am I upset I was unable to take my preferred capstone? A little, but I think what I gained from CHEM 475, both in knowledge and experience from a completely unconventional class makes up for my small loss.