What should you expect from the General Chemistry sequence?
How to approach and what to expect from General Chemistry

General Chemistry is the introduction to college science for many students. That time can be a difficult transition from the familiarity of high school to the much larger pool of college life. At bigger schools the class may be held in an imposing auditorium with hundreds of others students, and with a professor who is maybe the first person with a Ph.D. (and the title "Dr.") that you may have learned from. Know that most professors care about teaching and want to help you learn and that all schools have facilities (tutors, office hours, recitation sections) to support you as you try to get used to college life and the different level of expectation. Know that classes, and actual learning, begin in the first week and you should not get behind if you expect to do well. 

Tip: You go to the first class and get the syllabus and an idea of the course structure and what to expect. Take that syllabus home and match it up with the text book and the topics that are proposed to be covered for each exam. Then plan out exam dates and get an idea of how your overall calendar will look so that you are able to apportion your study time appropriately. Note when the Professor has scheduled office hours and when tutoring is available. Be proactive.

Attend lecture at all costs. If your Professor is organized you will know what material will be covered and in what order. That allows to to read ahead and to stay organized. Lecture should not be the first time you are considering a topic. You shouldn't need to make lots of notes as you have already done the ground work. In lecture, jot down questions you may have on topics that don't quite make sense. Then tidy up those issues, by doing more reading/problems or by attending office hours before starting to consider the next class. Do not let issues pile up as you will get behind and may never catch up.

Go to office hours. Professors (and Teaching Assistants) are actually very helpful. If you plan on entering a highly technical career in Science or Engineering you will have to get used to interacting with people of all education levels so you might as well start somewhere. Professors can help you with small and big picture problems from answers to simple topic questions to career guidance and future letters of recommendation. This can be quite difficult to face at first so take a friend if necessary. Getting to talk to people in the business will help you develop confidence in your own skills and abilities.

The General Chemistry 1 Course

When you first look at the Perioic Table it can be quite daunting as there is a lot to take in, however you should realize that you are not expected to memorize that table but to learn how to use it. It's a code, which is always availabe on the wall of the lecture room or on the front page of an exam. Learn the trends and how it is organized and you will be more efficient in your work and be in better shape if you have to take Organic Chemistry later. Trends like atomic size, valence electron counts, and electronegativity will help you decide on bonding patterns and reactivity. Some of the main topics to be covered are considered below with their relevance to Organic Chemistry highlighted. These topics build up over these courses so make sure you understand what is happening.

  • Atomic Structure - you have to know the nuts and bolts of how atoms are built and how the nucleus and electrons interact. In General Chemistry you will start small with hydrogen and build towards the bigger elements at the bottom of the table. Make sure you understand how the elements are organized in groups, to collect elements with common valence counts, and then rows to show the building process as the nucleus adds more protons and the electron count increases. If you cover hybridization patterns those, along with valence electron configurations and nuclear proton counts (atomic number), are very important throughout Organic Chemistry, and they are given to you on the Periodic Table.

  • The Mole and Stoichiometry - the Mole confuses people from the beginning and this carries through to Organic where yield calculations need to be carried out after lab experiments. We need to consider the mole like a dozen donuts; if you buy a dozen glazed and a dozen blueberry you get the same number of each even though they are different types. Same with atoms; 1 mole of carbon atoms is the same as one mole of bromine atoms. Combined with valence electron counts, moles add up to molecules. For example, one mole of carbon atoms and four moles of hydrogen atoms make methane (CH4).

  • Ideal Gas Law - how molecules with weak intermolecular forces interact in closed systems. Knowing the physical properties of molecules is key to being safe and successful in lab so understanding why some are gasses, some are liquids, and some are solids is important. The conversion between these states of matter, through melting and boiling, then needs to be appreciated. The pressure imparted on a vessel by molecules of gas will have practical implications later when designing and carrying out experiments safely in synthesis labs. 

  • Enthalpy and Thermochemistry - once you understand bonding patterns and stoichiometry you will move on to consider bond strengths and how they play an important role in chemical reactivity. Weak bonds will break during reactions with stronger bonds replacing them to give more stable molecules. Throughout General and Organic Chemistry the consideration of known bond strengths in molecules on either side of a balanced equation will be used to assess the viability of a process and the material that is preferred in equilibrium situations. Become comfortable with Hess's Law.

  • Chemistry in Solution - while this topic might seem mundane, with ionic compounds reacting to give new compounds some of which precipitate, it is the underlying ideas of chemical interaction in a bulk medium (solvent) that will be key. In Organic Chemistry the choice of the solvent, based on its physical and chemical properties, can make the difference between a synthesis working or failing. In Biochemistry the solvent is water again, which brings in very interesting (and quite complicated) ideas of organic and inorganic species interacting in a very polar environment. 

The General Chemistry 2 Course
  • Chemical Kinetics - the study of rate laws and how to determine them is important. Whether a reaction is unimolecular or bimolecular will be key throughout each of your (potential) Chemistry classes so it is essential that you become confidant with what the terms mean and how they relate to rate-determining steps in chemical reactions. You will also discuss transition state theory and activation barriers, which will get more detailed later on.

  • Equilibrium - the idea of reversibility in chemical reactions and the application of Le Chatelier's Principle. Usually presented with inorganic examples and also applied to acid-base reactions. You will discuss what factors lead to equilibrium populations of species and how equilibria will favour the more stable side in an equation. An understanding of the basics will be essential for success in Organic, Bio- and Physical Chemistry courses later.

  • Acids and Bases - this is the core topic that will point to potential success in later courses. The simple definitions of Bronsted-Lowry and Lewis will be covered and you will be expected to appreciate the greater utility of the Lewis idea. The interaction between electron-rich (Lewis) bases and electron-poor (Lewis) acids features extensively in General, Bio-, and Physical Chemistry. A thorough understanding of conjugate relationships, pH, and pKa will be needed.

  • Electrochemistry - covers the basics of redox reactions in inorganic materials. While this does not extend directly into the later classes, electrochemistry is the basis of modern fuel cell technology that is allowing for rapid progress in electric vehicle production and longevity. Electrochemistry is becoming a useful tool in Organic Synthesis so an understanding of the basics could be important to your future interests.

  • Coordination Chemistry - a topic that becomes increasingly important as you progress through Organic and into Biochemistry. How the Transition Metals are able to interact with electron-rich species to create coordination complexes. While these ideas have always been important in Inorganic Chemistry, the use of transition metals in Organometallic Chemistry and Biochemistry is becoming increasingly well understood.

Overall, while you are in General Chemistry, it is important to remember where you are going. While the topics covered may not overlap sometimes, they do build to an important preparation for what's to come. Knowing about the Periodic Table and its trends, and the ideas of chemical bonding get you started. You then begin chemical reactivity using bond strengths and the ideas of thermodynamics to study chemical changes. The difference between kinetic ideas (reaction rates, transition states) and thermodynamic ideas (equilibrium, stabilities of species) should be understood well so that you can build on them in Organic.

In the next post we will discuss how General Chemistry transitions into Organic and what to bring with you.