Chemistry 117/121 Principles of Modern Chemistry
Associate Professor John Fourkas, et al.
The moment of reckoning has arrived. It's 10:30 a.m., the Tuesday
after Labor Day, and for most of the freshmen entering Merkert Chemistry
Center lecture hall 222 it's their first class of college.
Associate Professor John Fourkas wheels a metal cart bearing gadgets
and glass beakers of various sizes into the room. He has a boyish
face, and were it not for his sports jacket and tie, he might pass
for a student. Fourkas begins not with a lecture but with magic.
"I'm going to show you some tricks," he announces, "and
as with any good tricks, I need volunteers."
There's a moment of hesitation, then one student raises his hand.
He is given a hard, hollow, plastic ball--it is actually two hemispheres
held together with a gasket. Before class, the air was suctioned
out of the ball with a pump attached to a small port in the sphere,
creating the vacuum that is holding the two halves together. Fourkas
challenges the student to pull the halves apart, expecting the task
to require considerable effort. Instead, the ball opens easily.
The professor frowns; something's amiss. A quick examination of
the port reveals a crack, which means the seal was never tight.
Fourkas laughs and moves onto his next--and this time successful--trick.
He picks up a small eye-dropper bottle full of water with his right
hand, then holds a slip of plastic transparency (the type used with
overhead projectors) tightly over the top with his left hand. Next,
he inverts the two and, grasping the bottle between the thumb and
forefinger of his right hand, removes his left hand from the transparency.
The water stays in the cylinder. He repeats the trick with a 16-ounce
flask of water. Same result. "Now," he says, disappearing
behind the cart as he bends over, "who wants to try it with
this?" He comes up grinning, hoisting a five-gallon, water-cooler-sized
jug onto the table.
No one budges.
"Good," he says. The experiment wouldn't work with a vessel
this size, he acknowledges. "Why not?"
He gives them a clue by writing the formula for atmospheric pressure
on the board: 14.7 lbs/in.
"What is pressure?" he asks.
"Force," someone replies. And they're off. Question quickly
follows question, as Fourkas connects the responses like dots in
"Is that all there is to this picture?"
"Force applied over a certain area?" a student ventures.
"Yes, force per unit area," Fourkas translates, stating
The lesson gradually becomes clear: When the pressure of the water
pushing down on the transparency is greater than the pressure of
the air pushing up on it, the transparency will yield and the water
will spill out. Fourkas works out the formulas on the board as they
go along, far less interested in whether the students remember the
equations than in whether he's got them thinking about what's actually
occurring in the experiment. "My goal," he says later,
"is teaching them how to think about the problem so the formula
Finally, Fourkas is satisfied that everyone has grasped the principle.
It is nearly 15 minutes since class began, and only now does he
formally introduce himself and his teaching assistant Rob Harris.
After class, student Chris Kolodziej says it intrigued him that
Fourkas flip-flopped the traditional lesson plan. "He gives
us the experiment and then provides the principles. Usually it's
the other way around."
Honors-level Chemistry 117 is the heavyweight among Boston College's
introductory science offerings. Former students describe it as "intense,"
"incredibly difficult," even "scary." Still,
every year about 40 freshmen sign up for the intellectual thrashing.
Fourkas's "Principles of Modern Chemistry" is the first
installment in the four-semester course taught by the department's
"most popular and in-demand faculty members," according
to the invitation mailed to a select group of 60 incoming freshmen.
This year, the prospectus went to students who scored 700 or higher
(out of 800) on the SAT 2 chemistry test, and it lured them with
the promise of smaller classes, more one-on-one student-teacher
interaction, and an emphasis on learning science through logic rather
than memorization. In exchange, the students who accept--and the
dozen or so freshmen who find the course on their own--are expected
to keep up with an accelerated pace and carry a heavier work load
than is required by the department's general introductory offerings.
During the first week, pre-med student Aria Ash-Rafzadeh got a taste
of how the exchange can work. She went to see Fourkas in his office
after his introductory lesson, concerned about whether she could
keep up. Fourkas not only recognized her, he mentioned a question
she'd asked in class. "That was really impressive to me,"
she says. Equally impressive is the long list of national and international
academic and research awards accrued by Fourkas and other members
of the department who participate in the course--among them, professors
Amir Hoveyda, Ross Kelly, Marc Snapper, and Lawrence Scott.
Since 1994, these teachers have accounted for four Dreyfus New Faculty
or Teacher-Scholar awards (which go to no more than 20 academics
in a year); three comparably select Sloan Research Fellowships;
two American Chemistry Society Cope Awards (only 10 are offered
annually); two National Science Foundation Career Awards; and Germany's
Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, to name but a few.
Hoveyda, who teaches the second-semester sequel to Fourkas's "Principles,"
came up with the idea for the course six years ago when he realized
that some prospective pre-med and science majors were being turned
off by introductory chemistry courses that repeated what they'd
learned in high school. His sense that top-tier students would thrive
on greater challenge proved correct. The dropout rate over four
semesters is less than 10 percent.
"Students don't run away if it's exciting," he says.
The course is not limited to science majors. Indeed, Hoveyda, who
majored in art history at Columbia University, has written, "I
want my students to see chemistry as art, as literature . . . I
tell undergraduates in my research lab that if they make an observation
for the first time, something that no other scientist has seen before,
it is like T. S. Eliot writing a poem."
The professors who teach the course rotate among the four semesters.
Their teaching styles vary dramatically, but the cumulative result,
students say, is highly effective. Lindsay Woodward and Vincent
Chen are sophomores who studied under Fourkas and Hoveyda during
their freshman year. They describe Hoveyda as an aggressive, "in
your face" teacher, while Fourkas's approach, they say, is
more low-key. With Hoveyda, says Woodward, if you had a wrong answer
on a test but supported it well, he considered it correct or gave
you some credit. "It was more about getting there," she
says. She remembers him kicking everyone out of class when no one
had questions, and his custom of calling on her every single day.
"He expects you to be 110 percent," she says, and then
Chen corrects her: "120 percent."
As early as the second day of Fourkas's class, it's easy to see
that he expects no less of his students. By now the freshmen are
deep into gases: how temperature affects their behavior, what pressure
does to them, how the so-called Ideal Gas Law isn't ideal at all.
The mist from dry ice issues spookily from a container on Fourkas's
cart. Different-colored balloons bounce, sputter, or deflate, depending
on the principle Fourkas is demonstrating. A gauge measuring the
pressure inside a metal ball falls and rises as the orb is passed
from cold water to hot. Equations and drawings cover the blackboard.
"Next time," Fourkas says, looking up from the flotsam
of another day in chemistry class, "it's on to atoms, molecules,
and molecular bonding."
Sanders is the editor of Boston College Law School Magazine.