Methods and Teaching in Chemistry: This Week’s Progress

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Advanced imaging techniques can make all the difference in scientific research. Image by jeltovski

Instrumentation propelled chemical research into realms that alchemists of old would have called magic. These methods, however, stand upon the foundations of 20th century science – and 21st century science continues to add to that foundation.

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is one outstanding technique that enables scientists to peer into the realm of molecules, and there are other techniques as well.

X-ray crystallography stands as a technique that opened 20th century science when scientists realized that the mysterious and invisible radiation was capable of penetrating the body and molecules as well.

In understanding we learn science, teachers realize that an older method may be of use: Socrates seems to be still alive after all these years.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Takes a New Path

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is a methodology developed in part by I. I. Rabi, Edward Purcell, Richard Ernst, Norman Ramsey, and a host of others in the middle of the 20th century. The methods, in short, enabled chemists to easily identify complex natural products and have powered medical labs in the diagnosis of disease.

Simply put, nuclei within molecules possess magnetic properties. When researchers shine a radio wavelength light on them, they’re able to identify the individual molecules based on their wavelength.

In recent news, researchers from the University of Manchester (UK) invented a technique making ‘hard-to-read spectra’ easier to discern. Oftentimes, magnetic resonance spectra suffer from poor resolution when one nucleus couples with another (signal overlaps upon another).

Quantum mechanics poorly describe magnetic properties, so we loosely state that nuclei behave as the opposing poles of a magnet. The method known as PSYCHE makes overlapping signals stand-out. The method employs a second source of pulsed radiation that serves to re-radiate the coupled nuclei. As a result, researchers are better able to identify complex molecules (e.g. steroids and antibiotics).

The results are reported in the journal, Angewandte Chemie International.

Understanding the GABA Receptor

X-rays are a mysterious form of radiation to many of us – the radiation easily penetrates different types of matter. The discovery of X-rays received a Nobel at the turn of the last century and their use was pivotal in the discovery of DNA’s structure.

Presently chemists use X-rays to discern molecular structure and connectivity in a variety of molecules. However in an intriguing development reported in the journal Nature, researchers from University of Oxford solved the structure of a long-standing, molecular puzzle: the molecular structure of the human Gamma Amino Butyric Acid receptor (GABA).

The receptor is known in chemistry circles as one of the more important structures that needed a solution. The results will eventually aid in the development of effective neurological drugs.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

The Socratic Method for Science Students

Socrates implored the youth to question authority two millennia ago – he subsequently accepted his cup of poison. His act of acceptance seemingly trickled down in unforeseen ways. The establishment of ‘the lecture’ as the means by which we pass along knowledge is in many ways a stumbling block for science students.

Science occurs in the field, the laboratory, and only occasionally in a lecture hall. In a reported development originating the University of Washington, a group of lecturers from across the US, are applying active learning techniques to the study and delivery of science.

As many student can attest, their ‘favorite’ aspect of learning science is how ‘the demonstration of an intriguing aspect of natural phenomena caught their eye.’  However, as the report delineates, students’ grades improved when instructors taught in active learning style; almost 1/3 of previously failing students were able to pass.

The present active learning style in the lecture hall is the clicker – and a lot of students can attest—it leaves a favorable impression. Perhaps, as more chemistry professors incorporate the technique into their delivery style—the student can unflinchingly state: “Guess what I learned in chemistry lecture today?”

The report is outlined in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Chemical Education.

A Road for Chemistry and All

It is certain that science will progress in ‘road less traveled’ fashion. In the past, the road was littered with many of those who attributed ‘science as magic.’ However, as the time and technology marches forward, the science of chemistry can clear a broad path for all to understand.

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