Issue Date: June 18, 2007
UNIVERSITY PRESIDENTS tend to keep close tabs on all of their school's departments. But at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Yitzhak Apeloig has a special connection to chemistry: He's a professor in that department and has served as chairman.
"Chemistry is a central science," Apeloig says. "It's well-placed among scientific disciplines." The field is closely tied to materials, has strong connections to physics, and lies at the heart of many aspects of biology and medicine, he adds.
Those connections aren't just conceptual or limited to textbook discussions. In more than a few ways, they tie a university's chemistry department—and the scientists who work there—to many other departments in a university. At an elite engineering school such as Technion, sometimes dubbed Israel's MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the relationship between chemistry and other departments is particularly pronounced.
"We're situated in the middle of a large engineering school, and as a result, we have a major responsibility for teaching chemistry to students from many departments," Apeloig notes. He says that of Technion's 18 departments, roughly 15 of them require their students to complete some chemistry courses and laboratory work. With approximately 2,000 undergraduates enrolled in chemistry classes, the department's faculty members and graduate students are saddled with a heavy load, teaching what he terms "service courses," such as general and organic chemistry and the associated labs. The departments of mathematics and physics are in much the same situation when it comes to teaching service courses.
The teaching requirements may be demanding, but they come with certain benefits and may lead to valuable opportunities, Apeloig suggests. For example, chemistry graduate students are sure to get plenty of teaching experience and may be forced to remaster chemistry topics they haven't studied for a few years.
In addition, the teaching situation may lead to fruitful collaborations between unlikely partners. As a case in point, Apeloig describes a water-security research project involving chemists and civil, environmental, and chemical engineers. Motivated by the threat of terrorist attacks on water supplies, the project calls for developing strategies for detecting and containing contaminants as well as other aspects of water management. The research program evolved from a relationship between the investigators who came together initially to develop an analytical chemistry lab course for environmental engineering students. Without the engineering departments' chemistry course needs, the research program may not have been launched, Apeloig says.
The importance of a solid education in science seemed self-evident in Apeloig's school days. But things have changed since then, he says. "In my day, the most talented students went to universities to study science, mathematics, or engineering." Nowadays, many top high school students want to pursue business, law, economics, or other fields. "For some reason, perhaps cultural, a career in science isn't very attractive to today's high school students," he observes.
Not only has science—especially chemistry—dropped in popularity, it has also fallen in terms of quality of education, in Apeloig's view. Israel used to rank third or fourth on international science education evaluations, he says. It no longer does.
"We are faced with a serious problem regarding the quality of high school science education. When I was in school, we had excellent teachers. But over the years, I believe there has been a significant deterioration in the quality of science education."
Fortunately, Technion still attracts some of Israel's top students, albeit a small fraction, Apeloig notes. Within that group, many of them enroll in biomedical engineering or pursue double majors in electrical engineering and physics, he says. But by and large, science and engineering no longer attract the country's very best students.
"In every generation, there are very clever people. One of the major challenges in Israel and much of the Western world is learning once again how to attract the best and brightest to science."
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