Molecular Visualization in Stereochemistry

Last weekend I attended a meeting of the Midwest Association of Chemistry Teaching in Liberal Arts Colleges (MACTLAC) that had a “Visualizing Chemistry” theme. This past week my students did the stereochemistry molecular modeling activity during the laboratory period. In my experience, this activity can be a powerful compliment to the lecture material, especially if done right after the lecture introduction to stereochemistry. Stereochemistry involves a fair amount of visualization. On the other hand there are several mechanical methods of solving stereochemical problems that do not involve visualization. I think the visualization aspect of stereochemistry is interesting and one of the major themes of Organic Chemistry. On the other hand, it is a difficult skill for many students. They often learn to use mechanical methods to solve stereochemical problems because that is where their abilities lie. Assigning S and R can be done mechanically. Learning the stereochemical outcomes of reactions (SN2, cis or trans addition) can usually be done without visualizations. I have a few problems that I assign that are designed to encourage visualization but they can probably also be done mechanically as well. One such problem is to determine whether the pairs of molecules are not related, constitutional isomers, identical, enantiomers, or diastereomers.

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