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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.

Faculty Spotlight: “Every Brilliant Thing” in U-M Classrooms

In September, UMS opened its 2017-18 Theater Series with Every Brilliant Thing – an interactive theater piece about depression, love, and the things that make our lives brilliant (from “the color yellow” to “ice cream” to “surprises”). The one-man-show featured Johnny Donahoe as the narrator, with many audience members playing parts in the story. Over 36% of the audience for the seven-performance run was composed from University of Michigan students; many of these students attended with a University of Michigan class that incorporated Every Brilliant Thing into the curriculum.

Below, some of the professors who brought their students to Every Brilliant Thing share their experience with the work, and how it impacted their students.

Photo: Moment in Every Brilliant Thing. Courtesy of the artist.

Colleen Seifert – Psychology  443: Creativity

My Psych 443: Creativity class is designing programs to build Gratitude in the Workplace; the play served as research about what people are, and can be, grateful for in life. The “brilliant things” list provided suggestions about being thankful for small things, and that noticing them can make you feel good. They each posted a brilliant thing in our chat room, which helped to get to know each other and to celebrate the small. Students raved about the show, and found it moving. Many mentioned how it fit into their life plans, as they are approaching the transition from college, and thinking about what they want in their lives. It served as a reminder that the small things make life worth living. It seemed to inspire them about their ideas for the Grateful Workplace, and raising the “humanness” of experience as a common bond even in stressful situations.”

Carol Tell – Lloyd Hall Scholars Program

“The Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (LHSP) is a first-year living learning program focused on writing and the arts. We brought our whole community (about 130 students) to the performance. We’ve been bringing our whole community to a UMS performance for a couple of years now. Instructors integrate the performances into their classrooms in many different ways–through discussions, assignments, blogging and other low-stakes writing, reviews, essay assignments, arts responses.

“Every Brilliant Thing” was particularly challenging for students to process and discuss. I think the subject hit a nerve with many of our students, who have either suffered from mental illness or have had a family member who suffered from it.

One of the LHSP writing instructors, Scott Beal, powerfully described how he integrated the play into his writing class: “On the Monday class after the performance, the students shared their impressions about the performance, and I noted some specific lines from the script to get their responses.  One theme we focused on, which seemed most pertinent to our course, is that it is a play about writing. The protagonist’s list is a piece of writing which is originally intended as a persuasive essay to convince his mother that life is worth living.  We talked about how it’s a piece of writing with an author, an intended audience, and a purpose, and about how the purpose is not realized effectively for the intended audience.  And we talked about how the piece of writing still ends up being powerful for other audiences in unintended ways (like the love interest from the library), and how it’s most important effect is in transforming the author himself.  There is a line late in the play about a moment when he realizes how much the list has changed his way of living and seeing the world.  We wrapped up our discussion by focusing on this line, which seemed a useful inspirational message early in the semester about why we’re all here in a writing class together:  not just to gain the power to persuade others, but more significantly to transform ourselves.”

Laura Olson – Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology 397:  Writing in Biology

“Overall, the students LOVED the experience. For at least one student, it was the first time she had ever been to a play. Many expressed surprise at how much they enjoyed the experience.  Two of our overarching themes in this course are ‘audience’ and ‘ego’ – both of which we discussed in terms of this event. We will also return to discussing this performance when we do our unit on “Science for a Public Audience” at the end of the semester. We ended up talking a lot about the impact of the medium on the power of the message that was delivered. We also talked about extemporaneous and improvisational presentation of material. The reflections they wrote on this experience were very interesting and enjoyable to read. ”

Twila Tardif – Psychology  114, Honors Intro to Psychology

“We covered a chapter on mental illness before and after the performance and talked about the narrator and his mother, what might have been going on with them in terms of a diagnosis, what the narrator said the diagnosis was vs. alternative possibilities, how depression and suicide affects family members, and various coping strategies. We also each added to the list of “brilliant things” with our own ideas in class.

The students loved the performance and were very responsive to talking about it. It made the topic of mental illness much easier to talk about and to personalize. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with my class!”

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