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Chemistry is Dead


Nick Falk
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Professor Harry Kroto, 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry believes that “British Chemistry faces extinction”

Is chemistry a dying subject?

UK universities are not attracting enough students to study chemistry. Some universities are closing their Chemistry Departments.

Chemistry teachers are becoming a dying breed.

What is going wrong?

Is this just a UK problem?

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Guest Andrew Moore

Is it not alive and well in its applied form?

Apart from the students who have to take chemistry for the study of medicine, there are others studying pharmacy, biochemistry, and chemical engineering.

Thirty years ago, no-one was studying, say, genetics as a first degree. The subjects change over time, but nothing that is valuable really dies. Maybe there is not such a great need for so many people to take a general chemistry degree.

Edited by andrewmoore1955
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This situation is a reality in many countries.

Andry says that what is valuable does not die. And I think chemistry is valuable and the mankind needs chemistry in its several applications.

What will be genetics or cosmetics or the biological process without chemistry? And I could go on in citing the all aspects in which chemistry is essential .

Nevertheless it is true that this science is going through a critical period.

One of the cause could be the fact that in Europe the chemical industry is not too developed.

Another cause probably can be found in the curricula or in the teaching/learning process.

It could be interesting to compare these aspects among the European countries.

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Guest Adrian Dingle

Like it or not, the popularity of pursuing academic subjects is likely to be driven in part by market forces. If it is really true that the popularity of chemistry is falling then I would suggest this is as a direct result of its usefulness in relation to employment, not in relation to its usefulness (if you see what I mean!?). For proof, one need only take a look at the number of lawyers being produced by the USA and the correspondingly large number of utterly ridiculous/trivial/frivolous law suits being filed.

Edited by Adrian Dingle
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Guest Andrew Moore

On a train from Brussels to Bruges, I was joined by three young organic chemists on their way to a symposium. Two were Spanish, one Italian, but they used English as their lingua franca, and I was fascinated by their accounts of their research. One was testing the toxicity of various plastics when dissolved in artificial saliva - work that would be invaluable to toy manufacturers in knowing that babies could chew the toys, without significant risk.

And at this point, in case you are thinking of three men in white coats, I will add that these chemists were young women, and far from any of the stereotypes we see in the UK.

The city near where I live has an economy that depends on chemistry for pharmaceuticals, household products, paints and petroleum derivatives - there is work there, and they continue to need people.

Given the need to understand and manipulate materials, there is no chance that chemistry will die out. But it may, and probably will, develop in new directions. And one effect of computer technologies could be that fewer people need some kinds of expert knowledge, as they can share it more easily. But the number of people needed in the manufacture of new fuels or drugs will not necessarily decline.

It is possible that more people qualify with general chemistry degrees than there are jobs for in Europe. And maybe some universities cannot sustain a viable faculty. But the suggestion that the study of chemistry is dead seems not at all plausible.

I can well believe that few qualified chemists become teachers, though. The attractions of industry may be greater. Maybe we are getting the numbers right.

Of course, in the UK's booming economy almost every kind of worker is supposedly in short supply. Well, that's good news for all employees.

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Andrew you as always maintain a positive outlook.

In the Radio 4 interview. Harry Kroto seemed a lot less optimistic about the future of chemistry. He did stress the importance of chemistry to the economy and suggested intervention measures to encourage take up of the subject.

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Guest Adrian Dingle

Obviously chemistry is an extraordinarily important subject, but the market will drive the number of graduates that the industry requires. This is turn will drive the number of students applying to do chemistry related first degrees and this in turn will influence the number of undergraduates and ultimately chemistry departments, at universities.

Of course the subject will never "die" but through greater efficiency the number of "chemists" required by the market will probably continue to decline.

More fundamentally (and this will upset many) I see no point in encouraging the study of any subject purely for the sake of it, there should always be a point. If the market does not require chemists what's the point in producing them?

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Hmmm, I wonder what use 'the market' has for historians, or sociologists, philosophers, or an abundance of musicians......

but wouldn't the world be a dull place if it was peopled solely by engineers and dentists?!

I like to think that curricula are designed with more in mind than filling factories with willing workers. Promoting social harmony for example... but perhaps we need less of that because economies so often thrive during times of conflict. ...

A world driven purely by market forces would surely be a dismal place,

Rowena

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  • 3 months later...

Many students perceive chemistry and physics as being very hard A levels and often opt for biology which they perceive as the 'easy' science A level. Even after choosing chemistry I often had more than average drop out rates. HOWEVER in my last 7 years of teaching I'd changed to Salters Advanced Level Chemistry and although the recruitment did not improve dramatically the drop out rate became minimal. They loved the applied nature of the course (except the coursework - VERY demanding, but good for university entrants), the 'weakest' students hung in and 90-95% of all students passed and the biologists appreciated the 'biochemistry aspects' from Aspirin to enzymes to DNA.

Most of my students went on to to a science/medical degree but rarely pure chemistry BUT most needed a good chemistry background. There is a need for students with A level chemistry background but they are more interested in applied acience eg medical sciences and forensic science. I hope there will not be a continued shortage of chemistry specialist but it could be difficult in the future with less pre chemists needed than when I was a student.

When it came to teach A level chemistry I'm VERY glad of my traditional pure and industrial chemical education background from ONC night class to being on the very 1st HND chemistry sandwich course in 'Widnes Tech'!!! in the 60's and finally graduating with a 'GRIC', the 'professional' degree of the (as it was then) Royal Institute of Chemistry after 1 years full-time education. We need good pure chemists in education because I feel thery can apply themselves to any chemical situation required, as well of course, as having good teaching and communication skills.

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  • 1 month later...
HOWEVER in my last 7 years of teaching I'd changed to Salters Advanced Level Chemistry and although the recruitment did not improve dramatically the drop out rate became minimal. They loved the applied nature of the course (except the coursework - VERY demanding, but good for university entrants), the 'weakest' students hung in and 90-95% of all students passed and the biologists appreciated the 'biochemistry aspects' from Aspirin to enzymes to DNA.

I am interested in the improvements attributed to a change of A'level Chemistry course. When I first joined the chemistry department of my school I persuaded the then Head of Chemistry to introduce the Nuffield scheme. Within 12 months we had doubled the number of students taking the A'level Chemistry option. This effect continued for number of years.

Over the last few years the numbers opting have slipped to near those prior to the change of course.

We now have a new Head fo Chemistry who is going to introduce the Salter's scheme to the school. I look forward to the results and the challenge.

Will it be a case of change bringing about new vitality to the department or is the new course significantly better than alternative options?

Edited by Nick Falk
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  • 2 months later...

To me Chemistry is the only real scientific subject because it is the only one that involves reasoning and logic as opposed to regurgitating facts (biology) or plugging numbers into formulae (physics). This is of course why kids find it difficult - because its one of the few subjects where they really need to use their brains and THINK!

We have the choice of either breaking chemistry down into such bite sized chunks that the students find it palletable, or selling it for what it is - a really interesting challenging subject that you need to work hard at to pass.

Rowena

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To me Chemistry is the only real scientific subject because it is the only one that involves reasoning and logic as opposed to regurgitating facts (biology) or plugging numbers into formulae (physics). This is of course why kids find it difficult - because its one of the few subjects where they really need to use their brains and THINK!

We have the choice of either breaking chemistry down into such bite sized chunks that the students find it palletable, or selling it for what it is - a really interesting challenging subject that you need to work hard at to pass.

Rowena

Does this mean that chemisty as a subject should only be offerred to the more able students?

Has watering the subject down made it seem trivial and therefore less interesting to the students who could be the future chemistry graduates?

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There was an interesting article about this in yesterday’s Guardian. It argued that Chemistry was indeed in crisis. It pointed out that university departments are closing (Exeter, King’s, Queen Mary’s, Swansea, De Montfort, Anglia, etc.) whereas others are reducing their numbers (down by a third at Leeds). Since 1996, 28 universities have stopped offering chemistry degrees. In 1994, 4,104 people applied to study chemistry. By last year it had fallen to 2,434, despite an increased number of students overall. There has been a decline in the number of students studying the subject at ‘A’ level.

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Rowena -

There is MUCH more to biology than "just regurgitating facts". I regard chemistry as crucial to understanding much of biology, and physics as crucial to understanding much of chemistry. You won't help your cause by downplaying the importance of either physics or biology.

We have a very small number of chemistry students here, but we have a very small number of students (about 530) in the whole college, so we're not very representative. None of our chemistry teachers (we have two - organic and inorganic) waters anything down. All of our biologists (the largest population of students in the sciences here) HAVE to take at least 4 semesters of chemistry - and I try and get them into 2 semesters of physics. That, of course, means a couple of semesters of calculus as well.

It's not easy to be a science student - regardless of one's major

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