About Chemical Innovation - Subscription Information
August 2001
Vol. 31, No. 8, p 3.
Leading the Way

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LaTese Briggs

A chemistry student visits South Africa

LaTese BriggsLaTese Briggs (llbriggs @yahoo.com) is a senior chemistry degree candidate at Hood College, Frederick, MD, and the president of her class. Other honors she has received recently include induction into the Bill Gates Millennium Scholars Program and the ACS Scholars Program. She also was an intern in the ACS Special Publications Department in 1999 and 2000.

It is rare for science students to participate in study-abroad programs because of the rigorous curricula that we must follow here at home. That is certainly my situation, but I had enough passion, as well as the help of a team of advisors, to cut through the red tape. However, my advisors tried to warn me that studying in South Africa would be very different and, in some ways, difficult. They kept saying, “You know that South Africa functions on the British system,” but no one could tell me exactly what that meant. All that they could say was that the curriculum was likely to be very different from what I am used to, and indeed it was.

At Rhodes University in Grahamstown, the first thing I noticed was the way that the chemistry curriculum is set up. Chemistry majors are required to take three years in the field. The course designated for each year is divided into two blocks—one per semester. So far, the setup sounds similar to most American curricula; the tricky part is that each block is divided into approximately seven subcourses, all taught by different professors. The subcourses can include very general avenues of chemistry such as inorganic chemistry, electrochemistry, thermochemistry, and environmental chemistry. In the United States, each of these would be a separate course taught over a semester; but in South Africa, they are taught over a period ranging from three days to two weeks. As an exchange student, I found this to be a very difficult adjustment because it felt as if all of the material was very discontinuous.

When final exam time rolled around, the impact of the academic disparity hit the hardest. It was like studying for seven separate classes. The classic trick of figuring out what the professors would ask on the exam just by their mannerisms in class was practically impossible.

Another surprise was that the final exam counted for most of the course grade. Most chemistry departments in the States allow a number of assignments, projects, and tests to count toward the final class grade, in addition to the final exam. However, at Rhodes University, lab assignments, projects, and the midterm exam combine for 30% of the grade, and the remainder is determined by performance on the final. Obviously, this places a lot of pressure on a student to do well on the final exam. Fortunately, the department removes some of this pressure by splitting the exam in two. Each part is three hours long, and they are given on different days.

When I first learned about the testing requirements, I thought that the department was just being mean by making its students take two full-length exams. But when I realized how much of my grade was actually riding on the test, I was relieved that the system is set up this way. This method of testing makes it very difficult for a student to fail the exam.

Yet despite the discontinuous curriculum and the horrific exams, there was one aspect of the curriculum that I thoroughly enjoyed: the product launch. This project involved students working together in groups of four to six to create a household product using their basic knowledge of chemistry. Some of the products this semester were pot cleaner, wood glue, laundry detergent, and my project, rust remover.

The groups were also responsible for creating effective strategies for marketing and distributing the product. To help students in these areas, compulsory entrepreneurial workshops were held weekly by the chemistry department. As a participant, I was ecstatic to be working on such a unique project. Before this experience, I never dreamt that I could use my knowledge of chemistry to become an entrepreneur. Now I have learned to think outside the box and am setting my sights on becoming an entrepreneurial chemist.

Despite the adjustment to the vagaries of the chemistry department, my experience in South Africa was excellent. I was forced to view things from a new perspective, which helped me to grow as a person. The experience also taught me to appreciate what it means to be an American, in terms of how efficient our country is and the opportunities available to us.

I highly recommend South Africa to anyone looking to travel to a land filled with beautiful landscapes, brilliant blue skies, and truly friendly people. If you are a student, just be prepared for a roller-coaster ride through the academic system.

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