ChemDraw: Assisting Learning in Organic Chemistry

by Jo Conceicao, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemistry at St. Gregory’s University, Oklahoma.

ONE OF THE major problems students face in undergraduate organic chemistry is the large amount of information they have to assimilate. I found that aggressive students traditionally solved this problem by spending an inordinate amount of time organising and committing the new found information to memory. Unfortunately, less motivated students become quickly overwhelmed, discouraged and eventually withdraw from the class. One solution to this problem is to immerse students of all levels into an environment of active learning. ChemDraw offers various features that lend itself to this purpose. Students in our organic chemistry class were required to download the trial version of ChemDraw onto their laptops and use it in class.

Notable features of ChemDraw include ease of structural modification and elucidation of molecular properties. The structure of a molecule can be modified by simply rearranging the bonds at one carbon centre and reattaching it to another, thereby allowing the name, physical properties and spectral details (NMR) of both the old and new molecules to be presented immediately, revealing to students the effects of these changes.

Nomenclature and molecular structure are most frequently the first topics undergraduates encounter in organic chemistry. ChemDraw offers several powerful features that allow students to efficiently learn nomenclature and the corresponding molecular structure, features including converting condensed formulas to skeletal structures, inter-converting skeletal/condensed structures to their corresponding IUPAC name and rendering organic molecules into a 3D perspective view.

ChemDraw readily converts between condensed and skeletal structures. This feature allows students to immediately see and correlate the line-drawing representation in the skeletal structure to the corresponding carbon and hydrogen atom sequence in the condensed formula.

ChemDraw also assigns names to either condensed or skeletal structures. The “CH2” Formula button facilitates the entry of condensed structures into the program. Once entered, it is a simple matter to convert it to the corresponding IUPAC name. If a student named the structure incorrectly, ChemDraw can readily generate the structure of this incorrect name and allow students to see the difference. This rapid feedback keeps students focused and allows them to cycle through a large number of problems.

Furthermore, the naming feature opens up numerous “what-if” scenarios for students to explore. For example, any structure can be systematically modified with a few mouse clicks to new structures. Nomenclature, physical properties and spectral features of these structures can be obtained and compared using ChemDraw. Students can thus explore the logical consequence of structural changes on molecular nomenclature and properties.

Last but not least, ChemDraw seamlessly integrates with Chem3D to provide perspective viewing of structures using the ‘Get 3D Model’ command. This feature is especially useful to visualise the difference between the cis and trans stereoisomers in cyclohexane and alkenes.

Correlating NMR peaks and splitting patterns to the corresponding protons has always been a major stumbling block for many students in second semester organic chemistry. Predicting 1H NMR shifts is a powerful feature of ChemDraw that is tremendously useful for clarifying NMR to students. Placing the cursor over a peak immediately highlights the proton giving rise to that signal. With this one to one correlation process, learning is greatly facilitated as students can systematically reason out how the observed spectrum results from the given molecular structure. Likewise a similar feature is available for 13C NMR.

The final feature of ChemDraw used in our class pertains to chemical reactions. One of the more troubled areas while studying reactions like Diels Alder is the complexity of the bond rearrangements that occur. ChemDraw offers a very unique feature with the map reaction atoms command in which bonds that were broken and formed in a reaction were quickly revealed. The word “Rxn” is added by ChemDraw next to the bonds that were broken and formed respectively in the reaction.

In conclusion, ChemDraw offers an impressive suite of features that are very useful in education. The ease of use and rapid display of results maintains a student’s focus on the subject matter, allows them to explore “what-if” scenarios and rationalise the results.

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