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MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding


5.111 Principles of Chemical Science


Cathy Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology



Course Features

  • Video lectures with subtitles, transcripts, and notes
  • Reading assignments
  • Problem sets and exams, with solutions
  • “Behind the Scenes at MIT” videos
  • “Clicker questions” and graphs of student responses


Introduction to the chemistry of biological, inorganic, and organic molecules. The emphasis is on basic principles of atomic and molecular electronic structure, thermodynamics, acid-base and redox equilibria, chemical kinetics, and catalysis.


When Cathy Drennan decided to pursue biology as an undergraduate at Vassar, she was skeptical about the relevance of chemistry to her education. Thanks to some dynamic teachers, however, she came to appreciate the connection between the two fields. Now a professor in both biology and chemistry at MIT, she is also the only person ever to have been named both an investigator and a professor with the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

As one of MIT’s most frequent teachers of 5.111—which is taken each year by more than 500 first-year students—for the past 16 years, Drennan has employed educational innovation to inspire others the way she was once inspired. For students coming to MIT to study the dynamic fields of computer engineering or biotechnology, learning about molecules and reactions can seem like a chore. Drennan, a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, has worked to dispel that perception by showing how basic chemical reactions underlie almost everything that happens in science. “It’s like learning a foreign language,” Drennan says. “At the beginning you are memorizing the words for ‘dog’ and ‘cat,’ but once you learn the language, a whole world opens up to you.”

Digital Assets

In 2011, Drennan used a grant from HHMI to establish an Education Lab, and produced a series of two-to-three-minute videos called “Behind the Scenes at MIT.” Most of the segments feature graduate students or undergrads describing their research in MIT faculty labs. Using illustrations and animations, the students explain how a basic chemistry concept helped them pursue solutions to real-world challenges as diverse as cancer, terrorism, and climate change. In companion videos, the up-and-coming chemists relate a personal story about how they became interested in science. Since the videos were produced, many of these subjects have moved on to pursue a chemistry-related career.

In a study conducted with MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory, students who had watched the videos rated their motivation to learn chemistry a full 1 out of 7 points higher, on average, than during the half semester in which they had not seen the videos. (The spike in ratings was even sharper among female students; notably, two-thirds of the video subjects are female.) Drennan posted these videos to, so they are available to anyone around the world with an interest in chemistry. They continue to be used by other instructors in the MIT classroom, as well. Assistant chemistry professor Matthew Shoulders, who co-teaches 5.111 with colleague Troy Van Voorhis, says he constructs portions of his lectures around the videos, and notices “the level of engagement spark up” in response.

As Drennan puts it, “Having a video of a peer saying ‘you should learn this’ is incredibly profound—it’s much more effective for students’ motivation than me as a professor jumping up and down trying to explain a concept.”

These videos are far from the only resources Drennan has made available to online chemistry learners. Since 2009, extensive materials from 5.111 as taught by Drennan and co-instructor Elizabeth Vogel Taylor PhD ’07 have been freely available on OpenCourseWare (OCW), MIT’s pioneering web-based publication of virtually all the Institute’s course content. Drennan is launching an extensively updated version of 5.111 on OCW this fall, featuring new edits of lectures that are divided into subject modules. “You can almost have the full experience of taking the course,” says Drennan: Visitors to OCW can download 5.111 lecture notes, homework problems, and handouts, and tally their success in answering onscreen “clicker questions” identical to those Drennan has used on campus to keep her students engaged and motivated by friendly competition.

As a resource for teachers, OCW includes extensive background information in a “This Course at MIT” section, in which Drennan discusses how she prepares lectures and promotes active participation.


All of these innovations emphasize using multiple pathways to learning—particularly important for the diverse group of online learners who gravitate to OCW. Drennan doesn’t expect every student will utilize every resource, but aims to make chemistry accessible to all students, and just maybe for some, to spark a lifelong passion for the subject. For a recent extra-credit clicker question, Drennan asked on-campus students what kind of video they would make to show the relevance of chemical reactions in the real world. She was overwhelmed by the responses, which included applications she hadn’t even thought of herself. “At the time they are telling me why chemistry is important,” Drennan says, “my job is done.”