The field of chemical education research has changed tremendously in the past two decades. Even though challenges still exist for practitioners, more resources are available now than in years past.
For example, many professors currently conducting chem ed research came into the field after completing degrees in other subdisciplines. That's partially because formal training in the subject was rare until a dozen or so years ago. But it's now becoming more common for graduate students to take degrees in chemical education and for postdocs to obtain fellowships, according to Renée S. Cole, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg.
Chemistry departments that offer a chem ed Ph.D. currently number about two dozen, according to a website (www.users.muohio.edu/bretzsl/gradprograms.htm) maintained by Stacey Lowery Bretz, a chemistry professor who conducts chem ed research at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. In addition to Miami, doctoral programs are based at institutions including Clemson University, Iowa State University, Purdue University, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Northern Colorado, and the University of South Florida.
Most of the doctoral programs are still small. Purdue, home to one of the largest and most respected programs, has five chem ed faculty. Of course, there are even fewer such faculty at institutions that don't offer a Ph.D. in chemical education.
Because many chemistry departments have only one chem ed professor, collaboration with faculty members at other institutions can be important. "If you're an organic chemist, you'll naturally gravitate to the other organic chemists," explains Melanie M. Cooper, a chemistry professor at Clemson University. "You've got people to talk to about your work. If you're the only person in an area, there is none of that intellectual feedback. So you can be kind of isolated if you let yourself."
But beyond the walls of any particular institution, "there's a really great chem ed community out there" that researchers can plug into, Cooper says. Practitioners can communicate via electronic mailing lists and other networks. The American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Education (CHED) "can be an important life vest for people who feel isolated," she adds. "And conferences are well attended."
Gatherings for enthusiasts include symposia on education research hosted by CHED at the society's national meetings. Other major events include the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, sponsored by CHED and scheduled to be held this July at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the Gordon Research Conference on Chemistry Education Research & Practice, which will take place in June 2009 at Colby College, Waterville, Maine.
Information about the profession can be found in "Nuts & Bolts of Chemical Education Research," a guidebook that was recently reviewed in C&EN (March 10, page 72). Cole and Diane M. Bunce, a chemistry professor at Catholic University of America, edited the book.
Chem ed professors can find a home for their research papers in a broad range of publications. They include the Journal of Chemical Education, which is published by CHED; the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, published by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching; the International Journal of Science Education, published by Taylor & Francis; the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemistry Education Research & Practice; the Journal of College Science Teaching, published by the National Science Teachers Association; the Chemical Educator, published by Boise State University's Clifford B. LeMaster; and the Journal of Science Education & Technology, published by Springer.
Chemical educators note that it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it into print. For instance, the Journal of Chemical Education can take up to two years to publish a manuscript after submission, notes Christopher F. Bauer, a chemistry professor at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. The situation is similar in other education journals. In addition, journals for other chemistry disciplines offer an outlet for publishing brief articles, known as "letters," with a turnaround time of just three or four months, but there's no such outlet for chem ed research. "So there's no fast publication route," Bauer says.
Publication delays aren't the only factor that slows the field, he concedes. "If you're doing a curriculum study for a course that happens once a semester, you can't repeat the experiment for four or five months," Bauer says. "It's not like you can start an experiment at the beginning of the week and have some publishable results at the end of the week."
Chemical education research takes a long time, Cooper agrees. "If you do an experiment, it takes a semester. And if you do it wrong, you have to wait a whole year before you get another batch of students." She adds, "If you were looking at some effect, you would want to do it more than once. So I would say it takes longer to get meaningful information and to publish a meaningful chem ed paper."
These limitations mean that it can be tougher for chem ed professors than for traditional chemistry faculty to publish a given number of papers, Bauer says.
Cooper believes that "most departments that are open enough to hire someone in a chemical education research position probably understand that."
But Bauer adds that it behooves departments that are seeking to fill a slot for a chem ed researcher, as well as the candidates themselves, to discuss the expectations for the number of publications required to win tenure.