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Faculty Spotlight: SOLO projects in Organic Chemistry

University of Michigan Honors students had the opportunity to experience a UMS performance for Ginger Shultz’s Organic Chemistry I class in the Fall of 2017. 

Veronica Dittman Stanich interviewed Ginger Shultz to learn about the incorporation of Organic Chemistry and performance in the curriculum.

Photo: Wu Man of China NCPA Orchestra

When Honors students in Ginger Shultz’s Organic Chemistry I class (Fall 2017) learned that they were required to attend a UMS concert and then create a project that combined music and organic chemistry, many felt “caught off guard” and “a little unsure.” It is admittedly an unusual assignment for a science class, but Shultz, whose research investigates the teaching and learning of college-level chemistry, was eager to nudge them away from the “get-an-A mindset.” “Organic chemistry requires creativity; designing and building a new molecule requires creativity,” says Shultz. To ignite this creativity in her students, she and Brian Coppola, who coordinates the Honors cohort for the course, used a UMS Course Development Grant to devise the SOLO project—Singing Octaves and Learning Organic.


For the SOLO assignment, Honors students (about 140 in all) attended one of five UMS musical concerts in October and November. Then, working in small groups, they designed media projects that combined organic chemistry with some aspect of the performance they attended. Each project had to teach a fundamental principle of organic chemistry in a peer-to-peer mode; however, the shape of the project was entirely up to the students. “The assignment,” Shultz explains, “is based on the belief that students have infinitely more ideas than we do.” It was this creative license that was most important, as well as challenging, for Shultz and Coppola: “How do we give students creativity, but make sure it’s connected to the course?” Because not all Honors students who took Organic Chemistry I were in Shultz’s section, there was a chain of communication—Shultz hashed out ideas with Coppola, Coppola met regularly with course GSI’s, and they led weekly sessions with small groups of Honors students. In that way, Coppola could keep track of how the projects were progressing and make sure that proposals fulfilled the criteria of the assignment.

Photo: Daniil Trifonov, piano


Although Shultz and Coppola had included in the assignment prompt some examples of how students might approach the project, few students followed those examples. Most created short videos that reflect the unique intersections of their group members’ interests and backgrounds with the concerts they saw. One group, inspired by pianist Daniil Trifonov’s particularly expressive playing, modelled a chemical reaction in which a high energy chemical intermediate (in this case, a carbocation) must undergo a favorable reaction to a lower energy product. Using a recording of Trifonov, they represented this process musically with a dissonant chromatic chord as the carbocation that resolves to a consonant chord at the end. Another group, who attended the China NCPA Orchestra concert, drew on one group member’s own expertise playing a traditional Chinese instrument to explore the parallels between musical notation and chemistry’s symbolic representation. The students observed that chemistry has its language just as music does and, accompanying themselves on the Chinese instrument, sang some of the rules of chemical nomenclature. 


china ncpa orchestra video trailer

Photo: China NCPA Orchestra

The range of completed SOLO projects is broad, including musical explorations of the chemical makeup of rosin and nylon used for violin strings, enactments of chemical reactions with students playing the parts of the molecules that bond and split (set to music heard in concert), original songs and raps explaining chemical reactions, and many more. The wide variety of SOLO projects not only bears out Shultz’s hunch that students harbor a wealth of ideas, it demonstrates a degree of creativity that couldn’t have been anticipated. Despite their initial uncertainty, many of the Organic Chemistry I students recognize the value of their SOLO projects, commenting, “The flexible thinking this assignment asks for is really useful in science,” and “In our Honors group we talk about the scientific process and the necessity of sometimes taking a novel approach. This [the SOLO project] is in line with that.”

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

Veronica Dittman Stanich writes about arts-integration in the university for UMS, and researches it for the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). She also teaches writing about dance and performance, and holds a PhD in Dance Studies.