Issue Date: April 25, 2011
Graduate Education’s Bright Future
I must expressly disagree with Hilton Weiss’s letter describing the current state of chemical education as “sorry” (C&EN, March 7, page 4). In recent years, hundreds of chemistry departments in the U.S. have had to grapple with the realities of difficult financial situations. At these universities, increasing emphasis on research has tracked with the increasing need for highly sought grant-based funding.
However, a strong research program (and strong channels of research funding) still depends on a deep, insightful understanding of chemical theory. Graduate chemical education has become less about sheer memorization of facts and more about the creative application of general principles. America’s best graduate students and researching undergraduates are gripped by the creative spirit and ultimately must take the bull by the horns—in the process they become critical thinkers and independent learners.
The true frontiers of chemical education remain, in my mind, at the undergraduate level. Justifying the relevance of chemistry is very difficult in an age when many students are looking ahead to extreme specialization in their careers. For example, what use does a future radiologist have for organic chemistry? To many ACS members the answer may seem obvious, but today’s preprofessional undergraduates are (understandably) less convinced. Keeping chemistry relevant and general for preprofessional undergraduates remains an ongoing challenge for chemical educators.
Larger class sizes aren’t necessarily the unilateral evil that Weiss purports them to be. Although larger class sizes may dilute the effectiveness of traditional lectures, they also challenge educators to develop meaningful, individualized learning experiences that place students in the driver’s seat of their own education.
In chemistry, we are blessed with several extraordinary semantic formats for the expression of chemical structures by computers: SMILES, CML, MRV, MOL, and XYZ come to mind. All kinds of existing software use these formats to create meaningful computer-based individualized learning and problem-solving experiences. At the same time, Web-based video brings the experience of lecture to students at any place and time. Meanwhile, teachers’ roles shift from boring preachers of lecture material to active, dynamic coaches of students.
Modern chemical education will arm students for battle outside of class using independent learning experiences and with effective problem-solving skills in class (and it will do so in a largely scale-independent way). The future is bright.
Michael Evans, graduate student
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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