New book by Joel Karty reshapes the way organic chemistry is taught

A textbook by Elon University's Joel Karty is one of a kind as a growing number of college professors incorporate into their instruction the same organizational methods and teaching techniques that Karty promotes.

<p>Associate Professor Joel Karty</p>
Organic chemistry, a foundational course for students pursuing careers in medicine or pharmacology or agribusiness, has largely been taught the same way for the better part of the past century. Professors typically focus their lessons on how to use reactions to accomplish specific changes to molecular structure and students by and large feel that they must memorize those reactions, of which there are hundreds throughout the yearlong course.

That’s a lot of memorization, many argue, and not quite as much understanding of what happens when different molecules interact with each other. As a growing number of today’s professors experiment with new ways to teach organic chemistry, largely by shifting their emphasis from a molecule’s appearance to instead how it behaves, an Elon University faculty member stands at the forefront of those innovative approaches.

Published this winter by W.W. Norton & Company, “Organic Chemistry: Principles and Mechanisms” by Associate Professor Joel Karty is the only textbook of its kind now on the market. Karty reimagines the way organic chemistry should be taught with an emphasis on helping students better understand the many complex reactions that define the field of study, and the book represents a potential resource for the roughly 200,000 college students who take organic chemistry each year at colleges and universities across the United States.

“This book goes against the grain of a paradigm of teaching organic chemistry at the undergraduate level, which has been firmly in place for the past 60 or 70 years,” Karty said. “What traditional textbooks do is look at one group of compounds at a time, according to the kinds of features they have in their molecular structure. My book, instead, has a mechanistic organization, whereby the material is organized according to how molecules react.”

Karty worked on the book for a decade and found his philosophy to be a great benefit to his own students in the halls of Elon’s McMichael Science Center. When Karty first started teaching at the university, only half of students who enrolled in Organic Chemistry I would eventually complete Organic Chemistry II. Now, about 85 percent of students who take the first level of organic chemistry finish the second course.

The completion rate is higher, Karty said, and students possess a stronger grasp of the concepts organic chemistry teaches. “I am a firm believer of the benefits of a mechanistic organization and making it easier for students to cope with the concepts they struggle with the most,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet to make organic chemistry completely transparent for everyone. … But organizing it this way essentially provides students with a ‘storyline’ to follow, and that helps tremendously. It builds from simple to more complex chemical reactions.”

His approach empowers students, Karty said, and understanding “is what leads to success.”

Karty earned his doctorate from Stanford University in 2001 and joined the Elon University faculty that fall. He published his first book, “The Nuts and Bolts of Organic Chemistry: A Student’s Guide to Success,” in 2005 and was later selected as a Senior Faculty Research Fellow for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.

His research interests lie in a chemical phenomenon called periodic precipitation in which ring patterns form in certain solutions, as well as understanding the effects of resonance and induction on reactions that involve relatively simple organic molecules. He teaches courses on organic chemistry, general chemistry and physical chemistry.