Culturing reality: How organic chemistry graduate students develop into practitioners

Gautam Bhattacharyya, George M. Bodner

Although one of the presumed aims of graduate training programs is to help students develop into practitioners of their chosen fields, very little is known about how this transition occurs. In the course of studying how graduate students learn to solve organic synthesis problems, we were able to identify some of the key factors in the epistemic development from student to practitioner. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with four first-year organic chemistry graduate students enrolled in a course on organic synthesis and two third-year organic chemistry graduate students who were in the process of preparing an original research proposal in organic synthesis as a component of their Ph.D. oral qualifying exams. Three interconnected factors that fostered the students’ development into practicing organic chemists were identified: (1) the students needed to perceive the material they were asked to learn in the course lectures and in other interactions with the professor as “real;” (2) they needed to work on authentic activities that provided concrete instruments for knowledge construction; and (3) the students needed scaffolding with a more-knowledgeable other in the form of feedback on the authentic activity.

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