Chemistry And The Premedical Curriculum

By Mary K. Carroll, Cynthia K. Larive

Department: ACS News
Keywords: ACS, education, pre-med

How will proposed changes to the premedical curriculum affect the chemistry curriculum? The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) released a report in 2009 entitled “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” (full report accessible at­AAMC‑HHMI_report.pdf). The report contains recommendations for the scientific competencies deemed essential for medical students as well as students preparing to enter medical school. The report grew out of a concern that premedical course requirements “have been static for decades” and “may not reflect the essential competencies every entering medical student must have mastered, today and in the future.”

The overarching competency at the time of entry into medical school, as articulated in this report, is to “demonstrate both knowledge and ability to use basic principles of mathematics and statistics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, and biology needed for the application of the sciences to human health and disease” as well as to “demonstrate observational and analytical skills and the ability to apply those skills and principles to biological situations.” The recommendations contained within the AAMC-HHMI report will inform the development of the new Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), due for release in 2015. Any changes to the MCAT and medical school entry requirements have the potential to affect the course of study undertaken by undergraduate premedical students.

After the release of the report, the ACS Committee on Professional Training and the Society Committee on Education formed a joint task force to examine the chemistry-related recommendations embedded in the report. The task force is focused on the premedical chemistry curriculum rather than the medical school curriculum, both of which are addressed in this report. Competency E4: “Demonstrate knowledge of basic principles of chemistry and some of their applications to the understanding of living systems” and Competency E5: “Demonstrate knowledge of how biomolecules contribute to the structure and function of cells” are the premedical competencies most specifically applicable to chemistry. The authors of the report recognize that a new approach to assessment will be needed to evaluate a competency-based approach to premedical education.

The task force has established contacts with AAMC and HHMI, is investigating innovative curricular models designed to meet the needs of preprofessional students in chemistry, and is exploring ways to share information regarding the proposed changes with the chemistry community. In addition to this Comment, symposia are being planned for the 2012 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education and the fall 2012 ACS national meeting in Philadelphia.

AAMC is addressing two major objectives: revising the MCAT and working with medical schools to shift admission requirements from specific courses to competencies. Revision of the MCAT is spearheaded by MR5, a 22-member committee that has drafted preliminary recommendations regarding the content and format of the new exam. The MR5 committee is proposing that the revised exam consist of four sections: molecular, cellular, and organismal properties of living systems; physical, chemical, and biochemical properties of living systems; behavioral and social sciences principles; and critical analysis and reasoning skills. Questions related to all four of these areas will call for the application of scientific reasoning skills, scientific research, and statistical methods.

HHMI is funding curricular innovations at four universities in response to “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians.” Most relevant to chemistry is a project at Purdue University. The university is adapting an existing prepharmacy curriculum consisting of one semester of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, and one semester of biochemistry to a competency-based sequence relevant to premedical students.

Several institutions have already introduced variations on the traditional core chemistry curriculum of a two-semester general chemistry course followed by two semesters of organic chemistry. Juniata College, for example, offers bioorganic chemistry as the first-year course, followed by inorganic and analytical chemistry in the sophomore year. General chemistry concepts are integrated throughout the first two years. The University of Memphis has modified its full-year organic chemistry course into a two-semester sequence including Foundations of Organic Chemistry followed by Foundations of Bioorganic Chemistry.

The task force continues to gather information on innovative programs and to identify ways in which ACS can assist chemistry departments in meeting the needs of students intending to enter the health professions, who typically constitute a significant percentage of students in general and organic chemistry courses. If your institution offers a chemistry curriculum for preprofessional students or you have ideas regarding ACS’s role in addressing the recommendations in “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians,” please contact the task force at

Chemical & Engineering News; ISSN 0009-2347

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