Breakout session B:
Introductory courses with an interdisciplinary thrust

Breakout session B:
Introductory courses with an interdisciplinary thrust

Saturday, September 6, 2003
3:35 - 4:30 pm

Thomas C. Werner, Professor of Chemistry- Union College


The presentation will focus on three courses that satisfy the science requirement for non-science majors at Union College. Topics in Chemical Analysis-Forensic Chemistry provides an introduction to forensic chemistry through the use of research-grade instrumentation and "crime-scene" evidence. Meals to Molecules looks at human nutrition from a molecular perspective, with an emphasis on how foods are used by the body how to interpret health claims from suppliers of food supplements and diet promoters. Introduction to Environmental Studies is an introduction to environmental studies from both scientific and policy perspectives. Topics include human population dynamics, global warming, acid rain, pollution and remediation and biodiversity. Case studies of PCBs, dioxin, alar, arsenic and mercury are discussed as examples of how society deals with problematic chemicals.


Union College has developed an innovative offering of general education courses in the sciences that highlight interdisciplinary and applicability of scientific concepts and techniques outside of the traditional STEM sphere. Union College has had success attracting students by offering GE courses on forensic chemistry, nutritional biochemistry, and environmental studies. Course summaries and some lab exercises are explained in more detail in the session summary.

General Education Science at Union College

  • Two courses in basic or applied science, one of which must have at least 12 hours of lab work.
    • 36 courses to graduate
  • Focus on specific topics rather than broad-based science courses.
  • Some are interdisciplinary; some are not.

Selected GenEd Courses: Biology

  • Seeing the Light: Concepts of Vision (ID)
  • Nature, Ecology and Wildlife Management
  • The Biology of Homo Sapiens (ID)
    • Anthropology Courses
  • Human Evolution and Prehistory (ID)
    • Anthropology and history course

Selected GenEd Courses: Physics & Geology

  • The Solar System
  • Science of Sound and Music
  • Physics and Politics (ID)
    • History course
  • Intelligent Life in the Universe
  • Laser Technology and Modern Optics
  • Geology of National Parks


Instrumentation Based Experiments in Forensic Chemistry for Non-Science Majors

Course Goals and Structures

  • Introduction to the methods of analysis used by forensic chemists.
  • In-class coverage of forensic chemistry topics, with background (general chemistry) information as needed.
  • Several laboratory experiments on simulated crime-scene evidence, using techniques and instrumentation employed by forensic chemists.
  • Critical appreciation of scientific method.

Expected Student Profile

  • Non-science majors who have taken high school chemistry.
    • Course counts toward lab science requirement, not any major.
  • Experienced college students (sophomores to seniors)
  • Want challenging, relevant, and fun lab experience.

List of Experiments

  1. Comparative Density Analysis by Flotation
  2. Determination of Arson Accelerants by Headspace Gas Chromatography
  3. Identification of Drugs by Spot Testing, Infrared Spectroscopy and UV-Visible Spectroscopy
  4. Chemistry of Breathalyzer (UV-Visible Spectroscopy)
  5. DNA Extraction and Data Analysis

Diphenhydramine and Cocaine

  • Unknown white powders, plant substances and simulated urine samples analyzed using pre-packaged narcotic identification (NIK) tests.
    • Diphenhydramine (active ingredient in Benadryl) produces false positive in cocaine spot test.
  • Student follows up with IR analysis to confirm
    • Takes diffuse reflectance spectrum of diphenhydramine and compares to lit. IR spectrum of cocaine.
    • IR spectrum does not match cocaine.


Meals to Molecules: Nutritional Biochemistry for Non-Science Majors

Course Goals

  • Students become familiar with the dietary macronutrients and micronutrients, and understand their roles in nutrition.
  • Students learn the chemistry, math, and data-interpretation skills necessary to understand nutrition and to evaluate health claims publicized by the media.

Major Nutrition Topics

  • Macronutrients: carbohydrates, lipids and proteins.
  • Micronutrients: water-/fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
  • Fortified food and supplements.
  • Safety of the food supply.

Major Chemistry Topics

  • What is a "chemical"?
    • Basic ideas about chemical structure
  • Calories vs. kilocalories and calculations.
  • Basic thermodynamics via discussion of calorimetry.
  • Reactions via discussion of digestion.
  • Polymers via discussion of sugars and starches.
  • Catalysis via discussion of proteins.

Lab Activities

  • Measurement and estimation using chemical glassware and household measuring devices.
  • Calorimetry: burn a peanut and bomb calorimeter demonstration.
  • Determination of vitamin C in OJ and in raw/cooked peppers by titration.
  • Water analysis with Ion Chromatography (demo).
  • Food additive analysis of M&M colors by electrophoresis.

Critical Thinking Topics 1

  • The Food Guide Pyramid and the process of its development.
  • Saturated vs. unsaturated vs. trans fatty acids. Why do "they" keep changing their minds about whether to eat butter or margarine?
  • The classic e-mail spam - human growth hormone - can it really make you look and feel ten years younger?

Human Growth Hormone

  • NEJM article implies that HGH may be effective against the thinning of skin that occurs in men over age 60.

Critical Thinking Topics 2

  • Glycemic index - are all sugars equal?
  • Are supplements equivalent to obtaining the substance in the diet?
  • How do you know if a supplement is safe?
  • Is it safe to eat foods contaminated by "chemicals?"

Introduction to Environmental Studies - Peter Tobiessen and T.C. Werner

PT Topics

  • The atmosphere
  • Energy and water budgets
  • Water allocation, resources, runoff and pollution
  • Terrestrial systems
  • Food webs and trophic dynamics
  • Biological communities and their interactions
  • Human population growth and implications of overpopulation
  • Genetic engineering
  • Biodiversity
  • Global warming
  • Alternate energy sources

TW Topics

  • Chemistry primer
  • Acids/bases and pH
  • Expressing environmental concentration (ppm, ppb, pptr)
  • Toxic studies and risk: case studies (saccharin, DDT, Alar, PCBs, dioxin, mercury, arsenic, radon)
  • Ozone depletion

Samples from Exam Study Guide

  • How do you account for the fact that there are millions of molecules in existence containing the element carbon?
  • Write a simple chemical reaction showing how carbonate ion can mitigate the effects of acid rain?
  • What is the significance of Avagadro's number for environmental work?
  • Explain, from a chemical perspective, why CFCs are so effective in destroying the ozone layer.
  • Give an example of what is meant by the term "the dose is the poison."
  • What is (are) the main message(s) in the DDT (Alar, dioxin, As, etc.) case study?
  • What is the significance of the Montreal Protocol?
  • What is the significance of the Delaney Clause?

Labs and Field Trips

  • Acidity and the leaching of soils by acid rain (IC demo)
  • Population models (computer simulation)
  • Visit to water treatment plant
  • Visit to Pine Brush area in Albany, NY
  • Visit to hybrid car dealer
  • Visit to residence using alternate energy sources


  • Mary Carroll
  • Kristin Fox
  • Peter Tobiessen
  • NSF-AIRE Award
  • Hewlett Foundation