Science + Technology

A magical reaction: Mix chemistry, YouTube and a special teacher

Professor Neil Garg has managed to find new ways to reach the next generation of scientists taking his no-nonsense organic chemistry class

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Neil Garg
Coral Von Zumwalt
"I guess it's time we talk about Diels-Alder/ We're so good at it you know we'll never falter ... "
 
Spend some time watching rap videos on YouTube, and a few might turn up with lyrics like those above and below.
 
"Get Markovnikov/ Have you seen him?"
 
In both videos, the name "Garg" pops up:
 
"Listen to Garg and you'll be fine/ Sit down and get yourself comfy/ Oh wait, just kidding/ It's CS50, park yo (beep) in the aisle ... "
 
Who are these people mentioned in the lyrics? Gangstas? No, they're famous ... chemists. Or, in Neil Garg's case, a UCLA organic chemistry professor and vice chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who has inspired some crazy rhymes and mad moves that have prompted rap videos, ringtones and parodies.
 
His class is Chemistry 14D: Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals, where extra credit is offered to students who create hip-hop videos featuring lyrics that teach a thing or two about molecules.
 
This annual tradition began in 2010 after one of Garg's students showed him an organic chemistry rap video on YouTube. Garg got the idea of offering a small amount of extra credit to students who wanted to create their own. Not all fun and games, the process was a stringent one, with requirements set by Garg and his teaching assistants.
 
"A lot of thought has to be put into the concepts before making the video," said junior Pyoung Penelope Kim-Lim, "because Dr. Garg and the TAs judge the lyrics and their relevance to organic chemistry."

The response? Nearly 70 video submissions, and it hasn't let up since. To Garg, his TAs or any Chem 14D student, the annual flood of submissions is natural since organic chemistry is all about creativity.

Say what? That's not the typical reaction to this intimidating, required life sciences course. "It was the class I feared most," said John Boles, who graduated last year. And yet, he added, "I credit Chem 14D with changing my attitude toward classes with the reputation for being daunting."
  Here's where the creativity comes in. "Organic chemistry and organic synthesis have been compared to art," said Garg. "You look at a molecule and see this beautiful structure, this piece of art ... [My job is] to observe this piece of art, convey why it's cool and teach students how to 'make' this piece of art using their own creativity and problem-solving skills."
 
Garg gets the beauty of organic chemistry across to these next-generation scientists in various ways. "His teaching style is explanatory, concise and clear — an overall picture that's broken down like a road map," said alumnus Tarik Takkesh.
 
Garg’s students aren’t the only ones who praise his teaching. The professor recently was selected to receive the 2013-14 Eby Award for the Art of Teaching, one of the UCLA Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Awards given annually to UCLA’s finest teachers. He was also chosen 2013's Bruinwalk.com Professor of the Year, a nice follow-up to his 2011 UCLA Hanson-Dow Award for Excellence in Teaching.

There’s another reason why his teaching style is appreciated by his students.
 
"He told this ridiculous story about his father-in-law that didn't seem to have anything to do with what we were learning at the time," Boles recalled. "At the end, it connected to the concept, and, in remembering all those details or reactions, I think of Garg's father-in-law."

To gauge whether students are retaining information from his lectures, Garg has them respond to questions using handheld clickers; he then checks the percentage of correct answers. And lest the prizes Garg sometimes bestows — beach towels decorated with periodic table elements or beach balls festooned with images of organic compounds — lead some to think he's a pushover, Boles warned that the good doctor is ready to school students on professional manners as well as chemistry.
 
Should a student be worried about being called out by name? Yes. And that's a good thing.
 
While Garg’s lectures in the UCLA College of Letters and Science class are routinely standing room only, with close to 400 students per class, his students are in awe of his name-recognition skills. "Dr. Garg makes an effort to acknowledge students who are doing well, versus only those who need help," recalled former student Justin Banaga. "That's not done very often."

Garg's interaction with students isn't confined to the classroom. Indeed, Garg, his wife and their two daughters live among students through the UCLA Faculty-in-Residence program. "It's rewarding, refreshing and keeps me connected with the undergrads," he said.

This connection has led Garg to tap into the media technology that's second nature to undergrads in order to convey the new language of organic chemistry. "Nowadays, students are more technically driven," said TA Tejas Shah. "Assignments like these — creating ringtones and rap videos — get students more engaged and help them learn."

The extra-credit video assignment rolls around during busy midterms. Instead of lackluster submissions, Garg and his TAs have seen students raising the bar on quality each year, with lyrics becoming more intricate and creative. "Even grading them is a fun experience," said TA Evan Styduhar. "We still make jokes in the lab about videos from years prior."

As it turns out, there's more to be gained from this exercise than extra credit. Catherine Wang, a junior majoring in physiological science, said she studied for exams with the videos playing in the background. She now applies the "rap methodology" to other studies. And, as Shah has noted, "During exams, I've seen people reciting lyrics from the videos." Garg and the TAs post the Chem 14D videos to YouTube, where views continue to grow as incoming students draw inspiration from past submissions. Banaga said the video his group made, "Chemistry Jock," has collected more than 75,000 hits.

Some of those hits come from other universities. Garg has heard from Jon Rainier at the University of Utah, Steven Castle at Brigham Young University and Bill Wuest at Temple University, whose classes have made parodies like the Chem 14D videos.

Assistant professor Luis Campos of Columbia University, a UCLA alum, has gone one step further. "I found Neil's project online and have since adopted the music videos in my organic chemistry classes and expanded to include movie trailer parodies and vines, or six-second videos."

Joked Garg, "I think Luis is trying to strike up an east/west rivalry."
 
And what does he foresee for his students? "Brilliant futures await them," said Garg optimistically.
 
Garg student Kim-Lim, for one, already envisions hers: "When I win the Nobel Prize, Dr. Garg is one of the first people I'll thank."
 
This story was adapted from one that appears in UCLA Magazine Online. You can read more about Garg and his innovative teaching strategies here:
'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of Chemistry)'
 
Here are two videos made by Garg's students:
 
 
 
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