This UCLA professor breaks down barriers of competitiveness in his 350-seat organic chemistry class, using a musical extra-credit project.
Professor of Chemistry, UCLA
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postdoctoral Fellow, PhD in Organic Chemistry, BS in Chemistry, minor in Mathematics
In his own freshman year at NYU, Neil Garg appreciated the positive reactions generated within a closely bonded study group. The inspiration for that study group was as simple as ABC—or, more accurately, EFG: His chem professor linked up lab partners alphabetically, resulting in “Garg, Neil” being paired with “Forshaw, Dave.” The group grew from there, adding other students from across the campus.
“Dave lived down the hall from Ray, and the three of us ran into some other chem students in the library,” explains Garg. “I studied with these same people for every chemistry test, two of us went to grad school together, and one of them was the best man at my wedding. I really benefited in many ways from being connected to these people,” says Garg.
Interestingly, Professor Garg did not go the alpha-order route to bring together students enrolled in his 400-person, standing-room-only organic chemistry class for nonmajors, Chemistry 14D. The inspiration for this group bonding project happened more organically, you might say, thanks to an off-hand remark by this then-new professor seeking to attract students to his class.
Challenge: Competitive students, challenging material
“This class is entirely about chemical reactions,” says Garg. “Walking in, the students know what the structures are [from the prerequisite course, Chem 14C], and in 10 weeks we cover 30 or so reactions and the mechanisms of why those reactions work or don’t work.” To offer some context, Garg adds that some of the concepts being addressed here were introduced to him in grad school—and Chem 14D is entirely composed of nonmajors. The upshot: This is not easy material by any means, especially if it is not the love of your life.
“This is often known as a weeder class,” explains Garg. It is usually one of those “curved” classes with a reputation for being highly competitive and incredibly challenging, which sets students up as adversaries, not collaborators.
“The last thing I want is for students not to help each other,” he says. In Garg’s view, the course presents opportunities for students to develop strategies for attacking, working through, and solving problems—something that always works better when approached as a team. Further, learning is more positive, productive, and easier when approached as a team. “I’ve never seen a case where things don’t go five times better or faster with four people than with one,” he says. “Even if it’s just two people, solutions arise more than twice as fast.”
Garg also sees his course as a forum in which he can facilitate collaborative skills among this group of sophomores. Studying together, he knows firsthand, can strengthen social skills. “Whatever the students do down the road, they’re almost certainly going to be working with other people, and those who can do that efficiently with people at all levels will excel,” he says.
Innovation: Rapping about chemistry
In the spring of 2010, Garg was teaching Chem 14D for the first time, with a class cutoff of about 300 people. “Students were afraid to take class with the new guy,” he says. Then one day, one of Garg’s students emailed him a webcam video of other students rapping about chemistry. Garg was entertained and intrigued by the idea of asking his students to create something similarly edu-taining.
“I mentioned it casually—in an off-the-cuff remark at the end of class—as a possibility of an extra credit assignment,” he says. “They loved the idea. The response from students was so enthusiastic.” No one knew what to expect, but even so, the students surpassed any possible expectations. “When the videos came back, it was clear that this was something worth repeating.” In Garg’s interview with EdSurge.com, he says, “The average video is usually pretty awesome, and the best videos are stunning.”
Course: Chemistry 14D Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals
Frequency: Lecture 3 hours per week, discussion 1 hour per week
Class size: 370–400 students
Course description: Organic reactions, nucleophilic and electrophilic substitutions and additions; electrophilic aromatic substitutions, carbonyl reactions, catalysis, molecular basis of drug action, and organic chemistry of pharmaceuticals. P/NP or letter grading.
In his words: “There are 350 seats, but some people don’t go to class—and sometimes people sit in the aisles. This is taken by any student in a UCLA life sciences major, but not chemistry or biochemistry majors. It’s not for anybody who would consider themselves a die-hard chemistry nerd.”
Chemistry 14D Organic Reactions and PharmaceuticalsSee materials
Lesson: OChem Music Videos
The music video extra credit assignment is, very basically, to “Make a ‘classy’ music video about organic chemistry.'” Any pop song will serve (though slower beats make lyrics easier to understand and appreciate). And the aforementioned lyrics should “contain mostly technical information about structure, reactions, and/or synthesis,” as well as the words “UCLA” and “14D.” Often, Garg’s name works its way into the song, too. “Most of the time it doesn’t affect their letter grade in the course,” he adds, “but they do it anyway because it’s fun.”
Below, Garg offers some strategies that he credits with facilitating the breakdown of a 400-member class into tiny but powerful study teams:
Keep the head count low
Garg’s rubric specifies that students work in groups of no more than four. “My own take is that if groups get too big, you have people not contributing,” he says.
Provide a clear (fun!) shared goal
The more detailed the assignment, the better for everyone. Being completely clear about expectations can help students avoid conflicts and confusion so they can focus on the task at hand. It also makes the end products easier to evaluate. (The first year, he received a mishmash of formats, which made viewing a logistical challenge.)
Offer an added incentive
Though the extra credit points rarely impact the students’ letter grade, offering a “carrot” is always a motivational boost.
Spell out the rubric in advance
Here is Garg’s explanation of the “grading” system used:
Just to be clear on the grading, the TAs and I will evaluate each video and assign extra credit points of 0, 5, or 10 to be added to your lowest midterm. If your video is one of the top 10 or garners 15,000 YouTube views within one week of posting, you will receive 15 points. The evaluation criteria include incorporation of organic chemistry, creativity, entertainment factor, and overall quality. If you can meet these criteria without being in the video, you would still get extra credit.
Make it easy to connect
Some students will gather in groups even before Garg mentions the project (it is a well-known component of the class), but others are not as bold. “If there are some people who are more on the isolated side, I try to facilitate some way to give them an opportunity to join a group,” he says. Garg encourages students to use the class discussion board to find study group members. “For some people, it’s a lot easier to reach out online.” There, he says, students can “market” themselves—say, if they have skills in singing or videography, or if they have access to professional camera equipment.
Offer encouragement, not answers
When asked if students have ever complained of not having the skills or equipment to complete the assignment, Garg says no. Perhaps that is because he avoids the issue. “I let them navigate it themselves,” he says. “Most use their phone or ask a friend or family member with audio and camera equipment to help them. Until recently, I never knew how to use those things myself!”
Staying outside the fray is not completely self-serving: Providing guidance and encouraging students to work together to solve a “problem” helps these groups form stronger bonds.
Allow outside assistance
Though all of the lyrics and content must be created by his students, friends and family can assist in any other way. “Two videos in our Hall of Fame were filmed by a student who [was not enrolled in] the class,” he says. The student had such a good time helping his friends that he went on to take a freshman chemistry class with Professor Garg in his senior year—even though he was a computer science major.
Allowing outside assistance is also helpful for commuters and nontraditional students, who may not have time to join a study group. Student Ashley Butler’s Say Alkane video was created with help from her friends in the film industry in LA. While this may not facilitate study groups per se, it serves the intended purpose of building social and teamwork skills.
Blow away the competition
As in, get rid of criticism and jealousy. Though there is a Hall of Fame, everyone’s video makes the playlist, and Garg encourages only positive commentary on the completed videos.
College is competitive enough, particularly in the sciences, says Garg. His goal with the music video project—aside from helping students learn their material for the final—is to inspire students see each other as resources and helpmates. “I tell them when they watch each video to give it a thumbs-up,” he says. “Let’s be supportive of each other.”
Popular OChem Student Videos
Chemistry Jock (2010) by Yannick Goeb, Justin Banaga, Kimberly Bui
We in the Lab (2010) by Jordan Cisneros, Rizwan Jattala, Sarah Sandhaus, Adam Uchimoto
Let It Be (2011) by John Boles, Edgar Gonzalez
Hey There Neil Garg (2012) by Firuz Yumul, Aaron Lalehzarian, Neda Ghassemi, Tianna Wilson
O-Chem Baby (2015) by Nikita Shams, Erin Saito, Rose Jarjoura, Danielle Polevoi
Overall, colleagues have not given Garg a lot of grief over this unorthodox assignment, though it was not the norm in 2010. “I have gotten the impression that some people think it’s gimmicky,” he admits. “But I think the benefits are tough to argue with.”
To date, the project has resulted in more than 500 organic chemistry videos on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of viewings, and positive publicity for UCLA and for OC in general. In fact, the first year’s Hall of Fame video Chemistry Jock (which became the “gold standard”) was at 105,880 views and 354 “thumbs-up” ratings at the time of this article’s completion.
“Now, other schools across all sciences are doing things like this,” he adds, so his students are in good company. Last, even if it is gimmicky, says Garg, so be it. “Some students say that this project is one of their best memories in college, and it’s associated with an organic chemistry course! It’s the outcome that’s important.”
Creating music videos on organic chemistry requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Presenting the end product for extra credit is rewarding, but not nearly as much fun as sharing it with the rest of the class. Garg creates a playlist on YouTube so everyone can check out their classmates’ work. This builds bonds between members of different study groups, too. Garg has often seen students hanging around in the courtyard after class to trade compliments on each other’s videos. “These students will be on the campus together for two more years after that point,” he says. “So, hopefully they’ll see each other again and have that shared experience to bring them together.”
The music video assignment has had a definite spillover effect in Garg’s approach to group work in other areas, too. “The videos were a clear reminder of the power of teamwork, so we put more of that into the classroom, as well,” says Garg. First, he divided his groups of research students (up to 20 at a time) into smaller teams to work on specific problems. Then, he encouraged his TAs to work with their Chem 14D discussion groups (each with about 25 to 30 students) in a more team-centric way. The TAs now present a two-sided worksheet of lecture-related problems for their teams to work on as a group. “They come in as strangers, but I’m guessing a lot of these lead to study groups later on,” he says.
“[It is] impossible to get the reaction mechanisms out of my head. I literally dreamt about organic chemistry three nights in a row. At this point, I’m not forgetting those organic reactions, because we made them rhyme. ”— Andy Truong, Mashup
“Writing the lyrics for the video actually helped me remember the steps to some of the chemistry mechanisms. I sometimes would find myself rapping my verse for fun, but ultimately remembering the lyrics has helped me to understand the main concepts.”
—Lena Chon, 99 Problems
“It was one thing to learn the concepts, but being able to apply what you learned in a creative form was really tough. All the time we spent on the video definitely paid off.”
—Michael Sianturi, Mashup
“The number of quality music videos that came out of this project speaks volumes about the enthusiasm all students had when working on the assignment, and I think most students (myself included) will remember projects like this long after their chemistry careers are over.”
—Yannick Goeb, Chemistry Jock