SME Chirality Module Design


"Light in the Physical and Biological World" is a year-long course aimed primarily at undergraduate Stanford humanities majors that need to fulfill their science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) requirement. Since these students have such widely varying science backgrounds, one thing we try to do to keep our diverse population interested is to teach material that the students have not seen before. The philosophy is that in doing this, we can level the playing field to some degree, since everyone will start out having little or no familiarity with the subject material at hand.

The Chirality Unit

The SME chemistry curriculum has not traditionally been very well accepted by the students; they either know it already and are bored or else have never seen it before and are deeply confused. My background is chemistry, and since one of the topics that inspired me to do chemistry in the first place was chirality, I enthusiastically volunteered to design a unit on chirality for the class. Chirality is an intersting and important topic in chemistry, and chirality in molecules is detected with light. However, chirality is a subject that is not treated in high school curricula.

What we decided on was a three week unit, the first one and a half weeks of which would give the students the background they would need to appreciate chirality: a lecture on the polarization of light and two on symmetry. Then there would be three lectures on chirality. In lab, various activities on polarization, symmetry, and chirality would give the students a means for choosing a project on one of those topics to explore during the second half of the quarter.

Survey and Pseudoscience

Hunter Gehlbach, Martin Lee, and I designed and administered a web-based survey to give to the SME students prior to the design of the unit that would assess their interests and learning styles. Among the questions on the survey, we asked students what scientific topics most interested them, and many of them cited material that fell more in the realm of pseudoscience than science. (This prediliction had shown up in the reflections from the fall quarter online journal project too.) After multiple discussions at faculty meetings, we decided to insert a two week unit on pseudoscience at the beginning of the quarter to make students aware of its prevalence and hopefully abet some of their faulty assumptions about science. So the project grew from a three week chirality unit and lab project to a three week chirality unit and design of the entire quarter's lab curriculum.

Designing this module was a lot of fun; it gave me a chance to re-explore one of my favorite topics in science. By the beginning of winter quarter, I had come up with the following:

Chirality Unit Lecture Notes (drafts of the material covered in the unit):

Lab Activities (designed in collaboration with Hunter Gehlbach, Kelly Beck, Sharon West, Ben Olding, and Sarah Schmidt):


The student projects that resulted from the chirality unit can be accessed here. Check them out--they're really impressive!!!

The chirality unit was a success, but there are many things that I recommended doing differently for next year. Here is my follow up to this year's incarnation of the unit.