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Education

Sorry State Of Chemical Education

February 7, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 10

The lure of fame and fortune long ago transformed the U.S. system of graduate education in chemistry into an apprenticeship system where course work, exams, and expectations of understanding have been discarded as an unnecessary waste of time. High grades in graduate courses are taken to mean that a student has spent too much time out of the research lab. We have all learned to accept this situation, as we describe the Ph.D. as a “research degree.” Postdoctoral years are then used to teach students how to design research and write grant applications.

However, the mystique of “research” has, more recently, nudged universities and even undergraduate colleges to flood undergraduate students with seductive “research experiences” in lieu of any breadth or depth of educational experience. Rather than exposing students to a varied spectrum of chemical experience, first- and second-year chemistry majors are given this “opportunity” to perform the mindless chores that occur during research so that the graduate students or faculty members can research more efficiently.

Undergraduate teaching is being sacrificed everywhere, especially in the “best” schools where classes have hundreds of students often staring at television monitors. Laboratory classes are eliminated and exams are in multiple-choice format to be graded by machines. Such factual recall promotes rote memorization to the exclusion of any deductive reasoning or intellectual challenges. The atmosphere for any normal student is mind-numbing and deadening. Is it any surprise that a tiny percentage of chemistry majors from universities pursue graduate education? Is there really anyone left who doesn’t recognize the sorry state of chemical education?

Hilton Weiss
Rhinebeck, N.Y.

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