How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


December 9, 2002
Volume 80, Number 49
CENEAR 80 49 p. 33
ISSN 0009-2347




After all the years I have spent teaching, I had to go to the other side of the globe to have an epiphany about chemical education. This year, I traveled to China to speak at the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry 17th International Conference on Chemical Education. There, I was struck by a presentation given by Peter Atkins of the University of Oxford. Atkins argued that all chemistry could be reduced to nine topics, including four types of chemical reactions. I was surprised to find that with each successive speaker, I was able to apply Atkins' principles to areas as diverse as nanochemistry and chemical biology.

In this interdisciplinary age of science, why are chemistry students still struggling with pedantic divisions like organic or physical chemistry? It seems to me that chemical education is less descriptive today than it was when I was an undergraduate student at Brooklyn College and a graduate student in Charlie Overberger's lab at Brooklyn Polytech. A recent headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion sums it up nicely: "High School Science Teacher Takes Fun and Excitement Out of Science." How can we expect to attract young people to our field when the really exciting, relevant chemistry languishes at the back of the textbook?

Before visiting China, I challenged the Society Committee on Education to examine how we might reinvent U.S. chemical education for the new millennium. The committee is planning a conference next year to discuss how these changes might happen and what they would look like. But I want to solicit input. If you could transform what is taught, how would you do it? What would you do differently? What would you include?

Notice I didn't ask what you'd leave out. If we approach this challenge properly, we won't need to worry about that. Chemistry is an enabling science; consequently, students should be taught central concepts that they can apply anywhere and in any developing area.

Restructuring chemical education will require a massive, cohesive effort. I believe we should start with our graduate programs, but we shouldn't stop there. Younger chemists are increasingly finding employment in interdisciplinary fields such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, or materials science. To succeed in these new environments, all students need to learn how to communicate with scientists in other disciplines, how to work in teams, and even how to manage a business.

Furthermore, we need to prepare students for the uncertain work climate of the 21st century. Until relatively recently, my career choices may have been considered unusual: I've worked for industry and academia and in both research and management capacities. Today's chemists are also unlikely to spend their career in the same job or with the same employer. Students with strong interdisciplinary foundations develop the necessary confidence and skills to adapt to new situations and become part of any team.

Several universities are already experimenting with this new approach, thanks to support from the National Science Foundation. NSF's Integrative Graduate Education & Research Traineeship (IGERT) grants--which NSF Director Rita Colwell calls "NSF's flagship for graduate education"--were created to help universities develop new graduate programs that foster collaborative, innovative, and interdisciplinary research.

Some 100 sites have received grants since the initiative began in 1997. Pennsylvania State University has established the Consortium for Education in Many-Body Applications, which integrates aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, computer science and engineering, materials science and engineering, mathematics, and physics. Other examples include UCLA's program in bioinformatics, which involves 13 departments, and Purdue's Innovation Realization Lab, which prepares Ph.D.s for entrepreneurial careers. Likewise, Georgetown University's Industrial Leadership in Physics program is designed to better prepare students for careers in the scientific enterprise.

I hope that new, young faculty from programs like these will step forward and revise undergraduate curricula. For those who choose not to teach, chemistry departments--at all levels--throughout the country need to do more to train students for careers in industry, where some 60% of them will find employment. The ACS Committee on Professional Training recently published a comprehensive report on graduate chemical education that supports the frequently expressed opinion that Ph.D. programs are not educating chemistry students for jobs in industry.

Nearly 60% of the 4,000 randomly selected ACS members with Ph.D. degrees who received the survey responded, demonstrating high interest in the topic. The differences between those Ph.D. recipients who are employed by industry (65%) versus those in academia (23%) were pronounced: Compared with their academic colleagues, industrial chemists were less satisfied with the formal courses they took, and they were more likely to report that more courses outside chemistry would be beneficial.

The survey also indicates that we need to show young people that chemistry opens doors to a world of new opportunities--in academia and beyond! One respondent wrote, "The single most important thing your committee can do is to help faculties recognize that industrial research, while different from academic work, is equally demanding, creative, rewarding, and is a first-class career choice." In short, our attitudes matter!

You don't have to travel to China to join this revolution in chemical education. Please send your comments and ideas to me at I want to hear from you!

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ACS Committee.


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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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