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Frank J. Dinan
Professor of Organic Chemistry
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Canisius College
An Adventure in Stereochemistry: Alice in Mirror Image Land

Playfully alluding to Lewis Carroll’s tale of Alice Through the Looking Glass, this case study considers the problems that would arise if a person were to cross over into a mirror-image environment. Students read about a drowsy undergraduate studying for a stereochemistry exam who finds herself in a place where spearmint gum tastes like caraway seed. The case emphasizes the lock-and-key theory of enzyme action and stresses the need for molecules to have the proper chirality if they are to be biologically useful. Designed for introductory organic chemistry and biochemistry courses, the case could also be used in biology courses.

Avogadro Goes to Court 

This case study was inspired by a successful lawsuit brought by students against a professor at Pace University who had assigned them the task of calculating the cost of a single aluminum atom in a roll of aluminum foil. The case deals with the concepts of Avogadro’s number and the mole, and so would be relevant to nearly all introductory level science courses including chemistry courses for non-science majors, general science courses, and, perhaps, some introductory level biology courses in addition to general chemistry.

Bilirubin: E-/Z-, But Not Easy

In this case study, two students meet a professor who surprises them by telling them that a biochemically important molecule’s structure has been incorrectly represented in the published literature - in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a major biochemistry textbook, and even The Merck Index. The students are challenged to find the nature of the structural errors and correct them. In addition to demonstrating that the technical literature is not without its flaws, the case reviews important concepts related to geometric isomerism and tautomerism.

Ethanol or Biodiesel?: A Systems Analysis Decision

In this case study, two students have been asked to conduct a “systems analysis” study to determine whether ethanol derived from corn or biodiesel prepared from soybeans is the more energy efficient alternative fuel. The students must investigate the two systems very broadly to determine all energy inputs and outputs. When the corn-to-ethanol system turns out to be less energy efficient, the students are asked to consider the political and economic consequences of this and the role that science plays in making policy decisions. The case is designed for general chemistry courses and non-science majors’ chemistry courses.

Kermit to Kermette?: Does the Herbicide Atrazine Feminize Male Frogs?

This case study explores the unintended side effects of chemicals introduced into the environment, specifically organic compounds that can act as environmental estrogens (chemical castration agents that can interfere with the sexual development of embryonic males). The case was developed for a non-majors chemistry course and focuses on the science that underlies the controversy surrounding the sale of the herbicide atrazine in the U.S. as well as the political and economic issues that impact this science.

Mystery in Alaska: Why Have All the Sea Lions Gone?

This interrupted case study highlights the importance of energy considerations within food chains by examining the population decline of Steller sea lions along the western Alaskan coast. A ban on commercial fishing of pollock in the 1970s caused a shift in the availability of the sea lions’ prey. Sea lions have an overall negative net energy balance when consuming pollock, but an overall positive net energy balance when consuming the fattier, easier to catch and digest herring. Could an increase in pollock and a decrease in herring be responsible for sea lion decline? Originally designed for an environmental science course, the case could easily be adapted for an introductory level chemistry or biology course by stressing quantitative, energy balance aspects.

The Case of the Missing Bees: High Fructose Corn Syrup and Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has claimed approximately one-third of the commercial honeybee population in recent years. A number of causes have been suggested for this phenomenon, including the consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) by the bees. This directed case investigates the issues and chemistry that might be involved in CCD related to HFCS. The case was developed for use in an undergraduate organic chemistry or food chemistry course.

To Spray or Not to Spray: A Debate Over Malaria and DDT

In this case study, students grapple with the complex issues surrounding the use of DDT to control malaria in the developing world. In their examination of the issue, students consider risk/benefit analysis and the precautionary principle, two techniques used when making policy decisions involving the impact of science and technology on society. The case has been used in a senior honors seminar for both majors and non-majors dealing with the nature and impact of science and technology on society as well as in an organic chemistry course for science majors.