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Why ACS approval matters for a chemistry program

by Thomas J. Wenzel, Chair and Laura Kosbar Vice-Chair, Committee on Professional Training
December 5, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 48

Credit: Courtesy of Tom Wenzel
A photo of Tom Wenzel.
Credit: Courtesy of Tom Wenzel

The American Chemical Society released its first list of approved bachelor’s degree programs in 1940. Now, with more than 680 approved programs, it’s clear that the chemistry community values the ACS approval process.

Credit: Courtesy of Laura Kosbar
A photo of Laura Kosbar.
Credit: Courtesy of Laura Kosbar

The ACS Guidelines & Evaluation Procedures for Bachelor’s Degree Programs aim to improve the quality of undergraduate chemistry education. The guidelines provide standards for the institutional environment, faculty and staff, infrastructure, curriculum, undergraduate research, development of student skills, and program self-evaluation that define excellent and rigorous programs of undergraduate chemistry education.

The approval program for undergraduate chemistry departments in the U.S. is administered by the Committee on Professional Training. CPT members represent the range of chemistry subdisciplines, the diversity of academic institutions, and the chemical industry.

The guidelines are routinely revised and updated by the committee to keep them current, increase curricular flexibility while maintaining the rigor and breadth of chemical coverage, and promote inclusion of student professional skills and modern teaching practices. The guidelines were most recently revised in 2015.

ACS approval ensures that students are prepared for life after college. Students graduating with a chemistry degree may pursue graduate study or a wide array of careers, many of which require the chemistry knowledge and skills they learned as an undergraduate. Others may enter careers peripherally related or unrelated to chemistry.

The curricular framework described in the guidelines is designed to prepare undergraduates for the variety of career paths they may choose. The breadth and depth of courses and laboratories that departments must offer to gain approval provides students with the comprehensive chemical background necessary to enter careers that require knowledge of chemistry.

A student’s long-term success is also enhanced by the skills that an approved program must help them develop, including problem solving, written and oral communication, use of the primary literature, information management, laboratory safety, teamwork, and ethics. Some programs openly use ACS approval to assist in recruiting top students. The ACS approval program provides a level of uniformity in programs and standards of excellence that benefit all students, as well as the profession as a whole.

Regular consultations with educators, professional chemists, and scientists allows CPT to understand the broad landscape of chemistry education, examine changing trends in chemistry education, and provide departments with meaningful feedback to help improve the excellence and rigor of their curricula.

Chemistry programs often use the standards in the ACS guidelines and feedback from CPT to justify the need to update or expand their course offerings; diversify their faculty; improve the rigor of their courses, laboratories, and research experiences; and energize their program by incorporating emerging areas into the curriculum.

Chemistry is a resource-intensive discipline, and chemistry programs often use standards in the guidelines to bolster arguments to acquire and maintain needed resources. ACS approval has enabled departments to increase their budget to appropriate levels, hire faculty members, reduce reliance on part-time and temporary instructors, expand professional development opportunities, reduce teaching contact hours, and hire support staff for the undergraduate program.

Departments have improved their physical plant and safety infrastructure, expanded instrument holdings and computational facilities and software used by undergraduates, guaranteed faculty and student access to journals and chemical information databases, and kept the size of laboratory sections to a manageable number of students as a result of the standards established by the ACS guidelines. Course offerings required for the certified degree allow some departments to maintain essential classes even with limited enrollments.

The guidelines stress the requirement of hands-on laboratory experiences undertaken in the presence of a supervisor, which departments have used to counter reductions in instructional laboratory costs through the use of virtual laboratory experiences. The emphasis on the excellent educational opportunity of undergraduate research has allowed departments to expand this resource-intensive activity, which particularly benefits students who will pursue graduate study.

The ACS approval program promotes a set of common goals, standards, and aspirations for excellence among educators of undergraduate chemistry majors. The guidelines provide an educational framework while providing programs with flexibility in designing their curricula.

ACS approval establishes prestige and recognition by affiliating an undergraduate chemistry program with national norms and standards established by the largest chemistry professional society in the world. The effectiveness and value of the approval program is validated by the wide range and diversity of institutions that seek to achieve and maintain ACS approval.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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