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Chemistry Professor Writes Questions for National Exam

Stan SmithEverybody knows what it’s like to face the blank answer sheet of a multiple-choice test. But what’s it like to be on the opposite side of the desk, and write the questions for such a test, especially one that is administered nationally?

That’s the experience Lt. Col. Stan Smith, associate professor of chemistry, had this spring when he helped to write questions for the American Chemical Society’s organic chemistry exam. The 70-question exam is given at colleges and universities across the country so professors can gauge how their students are doing compared to others around the nation. Students taking the test are typically chemistry or biology majors in their second or third year of college.

The ACS’s organic chemistry exam has not been given at VMI in the last few years, although some professors teaching other branches of chemistry do administer ACS tests.

“It’s been great to see how the whole process works,” said Smith, who took the organic chemistry exam himself when he was an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida.

Smith heard about the opportunity to craft the next ACS exam through Col. Daren Timmons, department head. Timmons had participated in writing ACS exam questions in the past. Smith put his name into consideration as a potential participant two years ago, but did not hear until last year that he’d been selected. He traveled to New Orleans, La., in April to meet with 14 other chemistry professors from around the country and narrow down a pool of 300 potential questions.

Smith contributed questions having to do with six areas of organic chemistry, including “green chemistry” and nomenclature. As its name suggests, green chemistry has to do with conducting experiments in an environmentally friendly manner.

“In organic laboratory, there’s a push to find cheaper, more easily disposable, greener processes,” said Smith. He noted that interest in green chemistry seems to be growing, and questions about that domain have begun appearing on the ACS exams in the last five years or so.

Nomenclature, or naming, is of special interest to a chemist, said Smith, because with a potentially exponential combination of elements, there’s an urgent need to name those combinations in a way that others can understand.

“If you start with 10 carbon atoms and 22 hydrogen atoms, there are at least 75 molecules that can be formed from these atoms,” Smith explained. “If you start with 20 carbon atoms and 42 hydrogen atoms, there are around 62 trillion molecules that can be formed. … It can get out of control unless there are rules to govern how molecules are named.”

And while the questions for the new version of the ACS test have been written, Smith’s work is far from done. There are two more meetings scheduled, one to create two mock tests that will be given to students, and another to review the students’ performance on the tests.

Smith, meanwhile, said he’s already reaped benefits from participation in the test-crafting process.

“One of the benefits has been seeing how multiple choice questions are designed,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of thought and philosophy that other people have put into what makes a good multiple choice question. …Seeing the effort that goes into these questions has been very good for me pedagogically.”

By:  Mary Price
IR - June 2013