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In the United States, we typically expect biochemistry majors to have taken a year of general chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, a year of biology, a year of physics, and a year of calculus before they take their first course in biochemistry halfway through their college career [1]. These prerequisite courses should prepare them for understanding biochemistry; however, we cannot expect that their instructors in these other subjects will share our enthusiasm and make the connections to biochemistry that we feel are important. Consequently, students who major in biochemistry often do so on faith for their first 2 years. They enjoyed chemistry and biology in high school and biochemistry seemed like a way to merge those interests. Yet there often is little to sustain that interest. As an undergraduate, I experienced this situation but was fortunate enough to have an academic adviser who convinced me to stay with the major until I had taken at least one biochemistry course.

Now as an academic adviser myself, I have known many biochemistry majors who, despite my shared wisdom, changed their major before they had encountered a biochemistry course. They did not like or did not see the importance of all the prerequisite courses when other inviting curricula beckoned. While college is a time when students should sort out their career options and disciplinary interests, the reasons for changing majors needs to be examined. For example, challenging chemistry courses sometimes discourage biochemistry majors even when they do well in them because they do not see the relevance. I counter this by saying, “I don't really like chemistry myself except as it relates to biochemistry; however, I have discovered that there is very little in chemistry that doesn't relate to biochemistry in some important way.” Or, more pithily, “for me biochemistry brings chemistry to life.”

It seems that biochemistry majors need more than faith or the encouragement of an adviser to endure 2 years of academic abstinence. How can biochemistry be introduced earlier into the curriculum by biochemistry faculty? Where could it fit into an already full and demanding curriculum? What should the goals be? There are certainly many possibilities ranging from freshman seminars and activities by academic organizations such as the Undergraduate Affiliate Network of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [2] to full-blown courses and restructured curricula.

The approach used at the University of Delaware and now assisted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Undergraduate Science Education Program is to offer Introduction to Biochemistry in the sophomore year [38]. (This is not Introductory Biochemistry. The distinction is important.) It is taught in a problem-based learning (PBL) 11 format with upper-class students as tutor-facilitators [5]. It is not a survey course. Few students buy the optional textbook but instead borrow texts available as classroom resources. Classical research articles with a unifying biochemical theme are presented in historical sequence and serve as PBL problems [68]. Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Disease provides the theme but other themes such as Vitamin C and the Common Cold or Insulin and Diabetes could serve equally well because introducing biochemistry in the context of prerequisite courses, rather than covering specific content, is a main goal of the course.

Students, usually in groups of four, work through selected articles that relate the content of prerequisite courses to biochemistry. For example, an article by G. G. Stokes [7, 9] “On the oxidation and reduction of the coloring matter of blood,” requires an understanding of oxidation and reduction, acid-base chemistry, principles of solubility, spectroscopy, chemical nomenclature, respiration, the circulatory system, among others. The next article-problem published in 1886 [10, 11] shows that hemoglobin is an enormous molecule and making sense of it requires an understanding of crystallization, stoichiometry, elemental analysis, and empirical formulae. Subsequent articles deal with physics, math, and genetics concepts as well as ethical conduct [6]. In addition to sustaining interest in the major, this course has had some additional unanticipated benefits for biochemistry majors.

  • They get to know each other and form study groups that often persist for the rest of their college career.

  • They are introduced to the research literature early and many elect to do research in the summer after their sophomore year.

  • They perform better in the subsequent two-semester graduate-level survey course in biochemistry that normally would have been their first biochemistry course. This later benefit highlights a problem at universities where biochemistry majors encountering their first biochemistry course get disillusioned because they do poorly in competition with graduate students who may have had biochemistry courses elsewhere.

While there certainly are other ways to introduce biochemistry majors to their discipline earlier in their college career, Introduction to Biochemistry in the sophomore year has worked well since its beginning in 1989. The PBL format, which was added in 1994, is particularly well-suited to the goals of the course.

  • 1

    The abbreviation used is: PBL, problem-based learning.

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