Students gazed in awe as a chemical solution changed color from red, to yellow, to green. Each color change was a step in a chemical reaction. To reverse each step, Organic Chemistry and Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry teacher Dr. Steven O’Malley suddenly climbed onto a table and poured the solution into another container, thus reversing the reaction by exposing the solution to the oxygen in the air.
“The traffic-light demo,” as Dr. O’Malley calls it, exemplifies “the reversibility of chemical reactions, and shows how a process can exist in equilibrium,” he said.
“I wouldn’t expect the teacher […] just standing on top of the table and pouring it from that height,” Organic Chemistry student and senior David Wong said. “It was pretty cool to watch.”
Organic Chemistry focuses on the study of organic compounds, which are loosely defined as compounds that contain the element carbon. The course begins by covering basic recognition of organic compounds and functional groups, or groups of atoms within a molecule that change its characteristic reactions. The course then moves on to the study of different types of organic reactions.
“The students learn how to take different organic functional groups and turn them into other organic functional groups,” Dr. O’Malley said. “They learn what synthetic chemists do in the real world. [They learn] how to make molecules, whether they’re used for medicinal purposes or industrial purposes. It all involves synthetic chemistry.”
Having earned his PhD in organic chemistry at Columbia University, Dr. O’Malley began teaching Regents and Research Chemistry at Stuyvesant in January 2006. At that time, chemistry teacher Samantha Daves was the only one teaching the course.
“I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I took it over for a few years, and we agreed to let me try it,” Dr. O’Malley said. “I’ve actually been doing it since.”
The course is designed to replicate a college-level chemistry class. Only juniors and seniors may take the class, and applicants need at least a 95 in Chemistry 1 (SC1) or Research Chemistry 1 (SC1H) and at least a 90 on the Chemistry Regents exam. Organic Chemistry I is offered in the fall, and students may continue onto Organic Chemistry II in the spring.
Dr. O’Malley supplements his lessons with PowerPoint presentations and videos. One of the most notable video he uses is the YouTube video called “The Tupperwares,” created by students from the University of California, Los Angeles. The video features a mash-up of country singer Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and rock band Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” set to lyrics about the SN2 reaction, a kind of substitution reaction, in which a compound’s functional group is replaced with another functional group.
On what Dr. O’Malley calls “Magic Trick Mondays,” he presents demos such as the traffic-light demo. Others have included making handheld fireballs with household ingredients and making carbon from sugar and sulfuric acid.
The sugar demo fascinated senior and Organic Chemistry student Nina Wang. The sugar started out white, but once Dr. O’Malley put in sulfuric acid, the sugar changed from yellow, to red, to black, representing an oxidative reaction. “Then you see this thing build up and up and up,” she said. “Ooh, it’s black. There’s carbon there.”
“I try and show students some quick little application of chemistry that in most cases they could safely reproduce at home with appropriate safety measures and adult supervision,” Dr. O’Malley said.
While students take the course because of their interest in organic chemistry, many are motivated to do so because of the teacher. “He’s really passionate about chemistry,” Xu said. “He teaches it as if it’s the first time. […] If you ask him to explain things, he’ll be really clear and he’ll take his time to explain it.”
Dr. O’Malley’s witty chemistry puns also help make his class memorable. These puns have inspired Organic Chemistry students to create class t-shirts, which have become something of a tradition. Two years ago, the class produced a shirt that read, “Organic Chemistry is,” followed by a picture of E and Z isomers, so the shirt actually read, “Organic Chemistry is easy.”
According to Dr. O’Malley, students began producing the shirts four years ago. They have created them on their own and by the end of their spring semester.
Dr. O’Malley hopes students will continue this tradition. “It’s very memorable and it makes each class stand out and stand by itself,” he said.
He also finds it an opportunity for students to teach organic chemistry to others, imagining that if a stranger liked the shirt, he would ask, “What does that mean?” and the student would be able to answer.
Despite the laidback atmosphere of the class, Organic Chemistry “isn’t [a slacker] class,” Wong said. “Actually, there’s a lot to memorize and work on. Almost every lesson, he manages to bring back things you learned in the past. It’s all interconnected, and if you don’t stay on top of things, it’s really easy to get lost.”
However, Xu does not think falling behind is a problem, “because he’s the only one who teaches it,” she said. “It’s not a strict curriculum that he follows. He’s really organized, so it makes the class a little easier, as it should be.”
Dr. O’Malley acknowledges that many students find the content difficult. “It’s not exactly the same as your Regents Chemistry class or your AP Chemistry class, even,” he said. “It’s a whole new set of material, and there’s simply so much that one has to keep up with in order to do well in the class.” Nevertheless, although students don’t have the solution, they are all eager to “precipitate.”