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Developing A Framework For Effective Undergrad Education

by Anne B. McCoy, Chair, Committee On Professional Training , Ron W. Darbeau, Vice Chair, Committee On Professional Training
June 17, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 24

Anne B. McCoy, Chair, Committee On Professional Training
Credit: Courtesy of Anne McCoy
Credit: Courtesy of Anne McCoy

The Committee on Professional Training (CPT) develops and administers the American Chemical Society’s Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs. The guidelines set benchmarks for the development of excellent undergraduate programs from which capable, competent, and versatile chemistry professionals emerge and in which chemistry faculty flourish professionally (see page 36).

This committee function appears simple, yet challenges abound in defining excellence, identifying suitable metrics for student competence, determining the knowledge and skills required for new graduates to contribute effectively to the chemical enterprise, and defining program characteristics that encourage professional development of faculty.

Ron W. Darbeau, Vice Chair, Committee On Professional Training
Credit: Courtesy of Ron Darbeau
Credit: Courtesy of Ron Darbeau

The wide range in size, resources, administrative structure, and institutional goals of approved programs and those seeking approval makes the task even more complex. Further, with chemistry’s central role in careers in industry, government, medicine, academia, law enforcement, and a host of other fields, ensuring that graduates are capable of meeting diverse challenges with competence and confidence makes guideline development a real challenge. It is not a task that CPT can undertake alone.

Therefore, the committee periodically solicits input from the broad chemistry community and performs an extensive review of the existing guidelines, revising them to ensure that they remain current with emerging trends in chemistry and chemistry education and the knowledge and skills required of undergraduates by graduate programs, professional schools, and employers. The guidelines must also encourage the development of an environment that supports student and faculty success.

In 2011, CPT formally began work on revision of the 2008 guidelines. Those guidelines represented a significant departure from earlier versions. Curricular requirements were less prescriptive and this flexibility allowed departments to develop specialized degree tracks that still meet the requirements for certification of graduates.

One of the greatest challenges in developing the guidelines is to balance instruction in the essential foundation topics while exposing students to an appropriately wide variety of specialized content. Topics such as polymer chemistry, green chemistry, computational chemistry, toxicology, as well as emerging fields such as nanoscience and astrochemistry, provide students with a valuable breadth of knowledge for future employment and a sense of the excitement of modern chemistry.

Other challenges include the diversity of chemistry programs that have or that seek ACS approval, the number and expertise of faculty members at smaller programs, and the ease and efficiency of transfer and matriculation of students from two-year colleges. Program requirements in terms of infrastructure, library, and instrumentation holdings, as well as the role of undergrad­uate research are being considered.

The rising prevalence of online courses and virtual laboratories presents a new challenge for the ACS guidelines. Several of the proposed revisions increase emphasis on the importance of hands-on laboratory experience. The committee strongly believes that students must use instruments and learn a range of laboratory techniques, starting in their first year of study.

Do virtual laboratories have a place anywhere in the curriculum for undergraduates? Online courses may play an important role in reaching students in remote areas who may not be able to travel to a classroom regularly, but how are faculty contact hours calculated for these courses? CPT continues to explore how to address online coursework and virtual labs in the ACS guidelines and invites your input on this important topic.

On the basis of an analysis of the responses to a survey conducted last year on the impact of the 2008 guidelines and subsequent additional community feedback, CPT developed a white paper outlining the proposed changes that might take effect in this revision; the paper can be found on the committee website,

Proposed changes include increasing the minimum number of faculty in approved programs from four to five to facilitate broader exposure to chemistry, requiring a capstone experience for certified majors, requiring student exposure to at least one instrument from each of five groups, and requiring that all students have ready access to Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy capabilities either on-site or at nearby facilities.

The committee welcomes feedback on the guidelines, not only from the academic community but also from employers of bachelor’s degree graduates, on how best to prepare students for graduate study and employment.

Please send comments to by Aug. 1 so they can be discussed at the next CPT meeting. The committee will also hold an extended open meeting on Sept. 8 at the ACS national meeting in Indianapolis that will focus on the guidelines revision. Details will be posted on the CPT website. CPT plans to publish the new guidelines in 2014.


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