Science + Technology

Organic chemistry sizzles for BACON students around the world

‘I laughed, I cried, I learned,’ said one student about UCLA professor Neil Garg’s fun tutorials

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Organic chemistry, a course considered intimidating by many students, desperately needs an ambassador. California Professor of the Year Neil Garg, who has been wildly successful in getting UCLA students to love organic chemistry, is more than happy to fill that role.

“The field of organic chemistry has made a tremendous mistake,” Garg said, “in not showing students and the general public its importance and why they should love it — or at the very least, appreciate it.”

That’s why Garg cooked up BACON (Biology And Chemistry Online Notes), a set of fun and engaging online tutorials that make connections between organic chemistry and such topics as sports, health, genetics and even popular television shows. Garg’s students have been eating it up, and a growing number of science educators around are using the tutorials — which Garg has made available for free — to inspire their students as well.

“BACON makes organic chemistry less intimidating and really helps students learn chemical reactions and retain the knowledge ... while keeping the stress level down, said Michael Bailey, Jr., a UCLA senior and pre-medicine major. “The BACON tutorials completely changed my view of organic chemistry. I laughed, I cried, I learned.”

One BACON tutorial explains the concept of oxidation reaction by noting that the popular pain reliever Tylenol, taken by more than 100 million people annually, can cause liver damage if overused. Students are guided through a series of questions about the oxidation reaction process — which is linked to liver damage — that occurs in the body after a person takes the medication. Another tutorial focuses on chemical agents used in everyday products like cosmetics, food additives and pharmaceuticals.

Yet another BACON tutorial describes how our bodies sometimes convert oxygen into oxygen radicals that can harm cells and DNA. Oxygen radicals are also associated with cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease; the tutorial uses the examples of Muhammad Ali’s battle with Parkinson’s and the movie “Still Alice,” about a woman with Alzheimer’s. Damage from oxygen radicals, the tutorial adds on a more upbeat note, can be prevented by antioxidants, which are present in many foods and vitamins.

“BACON makes organic chemistry relevant and important to students,” said Vandan Kasar, a recent UCLA graduate who formerly served as an undergraduate assistant to Garg. “BACON actually makes the material stick long-term because students have associated it with a process or product that they use in their everyday lives.”

Garg developed BACON with the assistance of graduate student Tejas Shah and several other UCLA students over the course of two years, and he continues to add new content. The labor-intensive project has received more than $20,000 in financial support donated by individuals and pharmaceutical companies.

“I enjoy thinking about how to teach students the relevance of organic chemistry in an engaging way,” Garg said. “So many students don’t appreciate organic chemistry and the important impact it makes on our lives. It’s a teaching challenge to help change students’ perceptions about organic chemistry, and I welcome the challenge.

“Our students deserve the best education,” he said, adding, “Other students deserve that, too,” among them the more than 8,000 students who have used or are currently using BACON at more than 30 colleges and universities, including Duke University, UC Irvine, Cal State Long Beach, Emory University, University of Vermont, and universities in Italy, Japan and Switzerland.

College-level educators who are interested in the tutorials, which are designed for use as a supplement to undergraduate organic chemistry courses, are invited to visit the BACON website and sign up for a free instructor account. AP and honors high school chemistry teachers are also welcome to sign up, but BACON might be too advanced for their students, said Garg, who added that he's considering adding tutorials for high

BACON is just one of Garg’s many innovative approaches to teaching. Especially popular among his students is an extra-credit project in which they produce music videos about organic chemistry and an assignment in which honors students produce videos about careers that incorporate organic chemistry. Currently, Garg is working with colleagues Lucas Morrill and Jacquelin Kammeyer to revamp UCLA’s organic chemistry laboratories for chemistry majors and develop a new curriculum that is challenging, relevant and fun.

Garg is the recipient of many honors, including a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2015 Gold Shield Faculty Prize, UCLA’s prestigious 2014 Eby Award for the Art of Teaching and UCLA’s 2012-2013 BruinWalk.com’s Professor of the Year.

Learn more about Garg’s “teaching secrets” in this 20-minute TEDxUCLA talk.

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