How Lifelong Curiosity Led to Custom Learning for Chemistry Students in California

Curiosity In Chemistry

This is how Dr. Simon Garrett talks about a great love of his life.

“It lets me indulge my endless curiosity—about why things are the way they are in our world.”

Chemistry, the subject of his studies as a student (he has the Ph.D to prove it), and now teaches to undergraduates and graduate students at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Throughout his career, Simon says he’s taken pride in helping hundreds of young people develop the same love for chemistry.

“There’s nothing more satisfying,” he says.

The CHEM 100 Challenge

Simon also knows that for every student who excels in the subject, there is another for whom mastering the materials is a struggle.

Recently, Simon and his department colleagues at CSUN noticed that the fail rate for “CHEM 100” (the introductory course in chemistry), was much higher than the average for all courses at the university.

“CHEM 100 is a pre-requisite for General Chemistry. If you don’t pass the class, you can’t advance to higher-level STEM courses,” Simon says.

“And for students who plan to go to pharmacy, medical or veterinary school, CHEM 100 is non-negotiable. Not passing the course can derail their entire career path.”

The set Simon in motion.

Driven by his both curiosity and his passion for helping students succeed, Simon started searching for an explanation for this high fail rate—and for a solution, too.


Driven by his both curiosity and his passion for helping students succeed, Simon started searching for an explanation for this high fail rate—and for a solution, too.


The CHEM 100 Student Profile

Simon’s several-year search for answers began in an expected place: with the “who.”

A large percentage of students who enroll in CHEM 100 are first-semester freshman, he says. Many work external jobs to support themselves or their families.

“This is the first time many of these young men and women are managing their own schedules.”

“That independence comes with the temptation to cut class. Unfortunately, we see that a lot in CHEM 100.”

Simon says the course can also be a struggle for students who diligently attend lectures and do the required reading.

“The ‘100’ in the course name can be misleading.”

“It may be a lower-level class, but it’s not simple subject matter to master,” Simon says.

He says if students don’t adapt their high school study habits to align with the more challenging material they see in college, their grades will suffer.

A Common Concern

Simon talked over his findings with chemistry professors at CSUN as well as faculty from other departments.

“I learned that lower pass rates are fairly common among introductory courses in the math- and science-related majors.”

Simon says the discovery was bittersweet.

“I knew the low pass rates in CHEM 100 weren’t the result of something I and the other chemistry professors were doing wrong, but I still didn’t have a plan to bring them up.”

Turning to the Textbook

The next stop in Simon’s investigation: the CHEM 100 textbook.

“Chemistry textbooks, and science texts in general,” he says, “are commonly very thick and very expensive.”

Simon says the chemistry text that CSUN had been using in CHEM 100 for years was no exception.

Something else that lowered the pass rate: the several-hundred-dollar price tag, so high that many students tried to get by without buying the book.


Something else that lowered the pass rate: the several-hundred-dollar price tag,
so high that many students tried to get by without buying the book.


With encouragement from school administrators, Simon’s colleague devised a plan: write his own low-cost textbook for CHEM 100.

“What he came up with was truly a no-frills product,” Simon says. “It had a lot of text and very few pictures to break it up.”

With a $20 price tag, it was undeniably a cheaper option for students, Simon says.

Stagnant Still Pass Rates

Simon says the original text still had problems.

Many students wrote on their course evaluations that the book wasn’t engaging and that they hadn’t even bothered to open it over the course of the semester, Simon says.

“After several years of use, we had increased passing rates only marginally.”

“We were back to square one, but I wasn’t going to give up—on the subject or the students.”

A Committee and a Custom Text

To help find a textbook solution that would engage more CHEM 100 students without breaking the bank, Simon convened a special committee.

Members included approximately a dozen CSUN chemistry professors.

“These men and women were in the trenches with me, trying hard to teach CHEM 100 successfully, despite the various obstacles,” Simon says.

The group eventually consulted Pearson—the publisher of CSUN’s previously-used commercial chemistry text.

Simon says the Pearson team helped he and his colleagues evaluate the student and professor feedback for each of its chemistry texts on the market.

When none fit the bill for CHEM 100 at CSUN, they did something unexpected: created a one-of-a-kind text.

An Unconventional Creation

“We were able to combine exactly what we wanted from existing Pearson textbooks,” Simon says.

“We chose only the most essential course material while still preserving the engaging elements of the longer texts.”

The final product, Simon says, is about half as long as a traditional chemistry textbook, and about half as expensive, too.


The final product, Simon says, is about half as long as a
traditional chemistry textbook, and about half as expensive, too.


It will be used at CSUN for the first time this fall.

“After years of research and experimentation,” Simon says, “I think this may be the CHEM 100 solution that moves the needle in terms of pass rates.”

“That’s what the administration wants, that’s what the professors want, and that’s what the students want.”