Faculty approve changes to chemistry major intended to increase accessibility

Luke Chinman

The chemistry curriculum at the College will change for the next academic year. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Rodriguez.)

Faculty approved changes to the chemistry major’s four-course introductory sequence — with 61 voting in favor, zero not in favor, and one abstaining — during the faculty meeting on April 12. The changes, which will be implemented for the 2023-2024 academic year, are designed to better accommodate incoming students with a minimal chemistry background, Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department Tom Smith ’88 told the Record.

This year, the chemistry department submitted a proposal detailing the suggested changes to the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA), which reviewed and approved the proposal before it came to a vote at the April 12 faculty meeting.

“There wasn’t anything at all controversial,” said Chair of the CEA and Professor of English Stephen Tifft. “It seemed clear to us that the goals of it were laudable, and we completely supported them.” During the faculty meeting, no professors offered objections during the open discussion that followed the reading of the proposal.

The chemistry major’s structure — which has been in place since 2001 — requires four introductory courses before students can progress to upper-level electives: a semester of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, and a final semester of general chemistry, which must be completed in that order. 

Currently, students are placed in CHEM 151, CHEM 153, or CHEM 155 based on their performance on the College’s chemistry placement survey. Each class requires increasing amounts of high school chemistry experience, respectively. After students complete one of these three general chemistry courses, they progress to CHEM 156, the first semester of organic chemistry.

In this system, students with little or no chemistry experience take only one course with other students at their level before enrolling in courses with students who have had far more high school chemistry experience, which the chemistry department has identified as an issue in recent years, Smith said.

“There are more students who — for whatever reason — either haven’t had access to any chemistry, or maybe had chemistry and it was pretty uneven,” he said, noting that the pandemic may have recently exacerbated differences in students’ educational backgrounds. “We were feeling we weren’t doing enough for the students who didn’t have the same preparation.”

The new major structure will introduce an additional course, CHEM 100, as a preparatory general chemistry course for students who have had little or no chemistry experience in high school. All chemistry students will then take the same level of general chemistry, now named CHEM 101, which essentially replaces CHEM 151, 153, and 155 in the current system, before continuing to organic chemistry courses.

While the changes to the major add an additional required introductory course to the chemistry major for students with minimal chemistry background, the proposal notes that this course will count as an elective — meaning students who enroll in it will have one fewer class to take after completing the introductory series. This policy ensures that it is not easier for students coming to the College with a stronger chemistry background to complete the major, Smith said.

“[The new major structure] is not as intense because you’re able to spread out more topics — I think that’s amazing, especially for a student’s mental health,” said Chris Flores ’26, who said he had no chemistry experience in high school, took CHEM 151 in the fall and is now enrolled in CHEM 156.

Flores noted the strength of his CHEM 151 professor, but he also stressed the speed of the course. “It is pretty fast, by the nature of what it requires,” he said. “I don’t think we even got to fully delve into some topics, which is a little unfortunate.”

“Now it’s more spread out, so the kids that really do need the [CHEM] 100 class — like I would’ve — gain that,” Flores added.

The approved proposal also includes changes to the times each class is offered: While the four introductory chemistry classes are currently offered only in either the fall or the spring, next year the department will offer each class during both semesters of an academic year.

“What we had was very rigid,” Smith said. “Until you got through all four [courses], you were kind of stuck. If you didn’t realize that ahead of time and you didn’t take chemistry in the fall, you were out of luck until the next fall. This plan allows for more flexibility.”

These changes to the chemistry major are the product of roughly a decade of conversations throughout the department, Smith said. Every summer, the department has taken a retreat to discuss various ways to restructure the major to accommodate students better. Smith said the department also consulted the chemistry major structures of peer institutions, like Haverford and Swarthmore, when considering the changes.

“I appreciate the focus on making sure that the students who need this the most — that they’re dedicating resources and time to this,” Flores said. “At a place like Williams, the assumption is that we all come from these very competitive backgrounds, and that’s just not a fair assumption to make.”