Organic chem for kids? UCLA program immerses youngsters in notoriously challenging subject
If you Google the phrase "hardest college class," chances are organic chemistry will be among the top search results. The subject matter can be so challenging that it has earned a reputation for encouraging students to change their college majors — and a nickname as the "pre-med killer."
But in a weeklong program this summer, a UCLA professor and a team of graduate students taught organic chemistry to students ranging in age from 10 to 12.
Chem Kids was led by Neil Garg, UCLA’s Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and seven doctoral students from his lab: Allison Hands, Arismel Tena Meza, Georgia Scherer, Daniel Turner, Zachary Walters, Dominick Witkowski and Laura Wonilowicz.
The course, which was held for the first time in 2023, was offered through UCLA Recreation’s summer programs. The high-energy sessions, which took place in a classroom filled with puzzles, games and giant models of tetrahedrons, seemed to achieve the mission: In a survey at the end of the week, more than 90% of the campers said they believed other kids their age could learn organic chemistry.
"Most people think organic chemistry is impossible," Garg said. "It’s been known for decades as the most difficult class college students will take. But it’s really just another language."
And if Chem Kids is any indication, encouraging young students to speak that language is, in part, a matter of relating chemistry to their everyday lives.
"Organic chemistry is happening all around us," Garg said. "It is even critical for the smell and taste of foods. So we made ice cream using liquid nitrogen, but we slipped in a worksheet tied to organic chemistry that includes chemicals that are common flavors in ice cream."
Those worksheets show bond-line structures — diagrams that show the chemical structures of molecules — providing a code to be deciphered.
"We’re teaching them how to crack a code, to unravel these structures so they know how many carbons and how many oxygen atoms there, are and how they’re arranged in three-dimensional space."
But those worksheets take up strategically limited segments of the camp, punctuated by visits to research laboratories, science experiments and opportunities to use virtual reality technology to view 3-D images of molecules. Plus, there are snacks and games — including contests to determine who can solve 12-sided Rubik’s Cubes the fastest. (Garg doesn’t always win, he said.) The 3-D puzzles not only provide playful competition, but they also resemble organic molecules.
"What we’re really doing is getting kids excited about STEM and problem-solving," Garg said. "These kids are incredibly smart. They’re inspiring. They’re the future."
Garg is already well known around UCLA — and beyond — for his ability to demistify organic chemistry. Over the years, he has made the concepts understandable, and even fun, for the more than 2,300 students who have been through his popular undergraduate course, "Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals."