May 5, 2023 | FEATURES | By Toby Wilkinson
CH107: General Chemistry is a keystone introductory course in many Colorado College students’ academic careers. Although some might actually enjoy the course for itself, many take it because it’s a requirement for their intended major. But for the first time, during Block 7 this spring, there was an alternative; CH117: General Chemistry I with Environmental Emphasis, a course created and taught by Professor Eli Fahrenkrug.
Admittedly, I didn’t end up in the course intentionally – I tried to get into a standard CH107 course and ended up on a very long waitlist. CH117 still had available spaces, perhaps because people didn’t realize that it satisfies all the same prerequisites and major requirements as CH107.
Needless to say, I seized the opportunity.
Fahrenkrug’s interest in interdisciplinary focused courses began with his undergraduate studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. where all the courses are taught through an interdisciplinary perspective. Students receive narrative evaluations rather than traditional grades. Fahrenkrug already teaches his more advanced chemistry courses through environmentally focused projects, but this is the first introductory course specifically designed to teach chemistry through an environmental lens.
So, what does it mean to teach General Chemistry I through an environmental lens? We still balanced and classified different types of chemical reactions, we still learned about molecular structure, polarity, and resonance, and we still covered bonding models and chemical energy. All of this had to be covered so that the course counts for the same credit as CH107. The difference was, every topic we covered was applied to the context of the environment, human interaction with the environment, and climate change.
We put redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions into the context of photosynthesis, and nitrogen fixation into the context of soil. Plus, we used our newfound understanding of molecular structure and polarity to discuss why certain compounds act as greenhouse gases while others do not. We investigated how energy and energy exchange relate to the warming of the planet’s oceans.
All of this culminated in a final, self-designed research project during the fourth week of the block, investigating water chemistry at sites in Manitou Springs and nearby Chico Basin Ranch. This project combined the basic chemical concepts, lab techniques, and statistical analysis we had learned during the first two and a half weeks of the course.
When asked what Fahrenkrug thought the advantages of this class over CH107 were, he said it was this contextualization of concepts, because “most humans learn better through context that relates to their own lived experience.”
On the other hand, when asked about the disadvantages, Fahrenkrug noted that “there’s never enough time on the Block Plan…this is particularly exacerbated in a General Chemistry I course, where the assumption is that students have very little chemistry experience prior to taking the course.”
He does state that this is more so a challenge than it is a disadvantage. It also points to the future of similar courses, as Fahrenkrug would like to develop a version of the class from General Chemistry II in the future, which he believes will be “an even better platform to focus on environmental chemistry,” as the basic terminology and foundations of chemistry are already established.
In the short term, Fahrenkrug will be on sabbatical next year, but Professor Sally Meyer will be teaching a CH117 class next Spring during Block 5, and there will hopefully be multiple CH117 courses offered each year in the future.
As for who should take this course, Fahrenkrug often reminded us during class that very few of us would end up as chemistry or biochemistry majors. He thinks, and I agree, that this is an ideal course for students interested in majoring in other subjects such as organismal biology & ecology, geology, and the environmental program which require general chemistry courses. These majors specifically address the interdisciplinary relationships between chemistry and those subjects, and this is the reason students are required to take general chemistry courses for those majors in the first place.
Beyond that, Fahrenkrug says one of the main reasons for this course was because it is more interesting and exciting for him to teach from an environmental perspective. This same reason can make it a far more engaging course for students who have the same interest in the environment. So, if you’re a non-chemistry major who needs to take General Chemistry, or you’re simply looking for a more contextualized and interdisciplinary introduction to the subject, CH117 may be the course for you.
Fortuitously, the first iteration of this course also occurred during the same block that American futurist Bryan Alexander came to speak on First Monday about his book “Universities on Fire: Higher Education in the Climate Crisis,” as well as his work as a whole.
Coincidentally, Alexander and Eli both received their doctorates from the University of Michigan. One of the ideas Alexander covered in his presentation was the integration of environmental education across an academic curriculum. Perhaps CH117 is the beginning – or simply a continuation of – that trend at CC. There’s already an extensive list of courses in CC’s environmental program that intertwine with a wide range of subjects including law, political science, sociology, and philosophy.
But what other introductory courses could be taught through an environmental lens? Could mathematical modeling and computer science be taught through the context of predicting the effects of climate change? What biology and ecology courses could be taught focusing on organisms and ecosystems’ reactions to the changing climate? Only time will tell.