Where are they all?
About a week ago I queried a professor of mine about how many chemistry honours students that had enrolled this year. Her response of, ‘six’, was somewhat more than disappointing. Six honours students at a university whose main campus has over 40,000 students, approximately 4500 of which are enrolled in the Sciences.
Granted, chemistry is one of the smallest graduating classes of all the disciplines (it’s right next to biophysics, which had a grand total of 2 graduates last year). That being said, when you consider that first year chemistry courses have consistently had enrollments of above 1300 for the past 4 or 5 years, you really do have to question where all the students are going? Of the 1300 or so first year chemistry students, around 1200 won’t continue with chemistry. Of those that continue with second year chemistry, almost all of them continue on to third year and of those who then graduate, only a few continue on to honours.
One of the major issues I see is the general lack of student interest at the lower levels. A lot of this has to do with the fact that many of the students partaking in first year organic/general/physical chemistry are there because they have to be as part of their biology major or as part of their pre-med, physiotherapy, biomed or pharmacy degree. In general, these are the types of students who ask, ‘will this be on the exam’, every lecture; the type who aren’t really there to learn, but to memorise enough to get a pass in the course. However, while the number of student who fall under this banner is certainly large, it still doesn’t really account for the huge drop in numbers.
A few years ago I used to tutor a student in first year organic/inorganic chemistry. At the start of the semester, the first of his tertiary education experience, his plan was to continue with a chemistry major. As the weeks went by, his interest in chemistry showed signs of dwindling. He changed from, ‘all chemistry is great’, to, ‘I really don’t like inorganic chemistry’, to, ‘I think I’m going to do a nano major’, in the space of three months. Try though I did to teach him mechanisms and what I like to call ‘chemical intuition’, every week he would come back with the same questions in a different context. By the end of semester, it became glaringly apparent that he was learning nothing and trying to memorise everything. This of course did him no favours, although he did just manage to pass the exam. By the end of the year, having further tutored him in first year physical chemistry (which he failed), his interest in the subject had dropped so dramatically that he changed from science to do mechanical engineering. This illustrates a point that became more and more obvious to me when I tutored lower level chemistry and was confirmed when I started tutoring second and third years – students aren’t coming in to the lower courses with enough understanding to actually facilitate proper learning.
Rather than understanding the material, students will try to memorise it. The problem with this in chemistry, especially organic chemistry, is that there is simply too much to memorise and it does you absolutely no good when you are asked to apply what you are taught to different contexts (which they are). As an example, last year the university I attend brought in short answer questions to their end of semester exam for first year organic/inorganic chemistry. The purpose of this was to properly test whether students could actually recall and understand material themselves as opposed to relying on chance. The first question was a simple one step transformation – a bromination, IIRC. Most students got it right. The remaining 4 questions, however, required at least two steps and a small amount of abstract thought. Even if students didn’t get the reagents right, but could explain what needed doing, they would get marks. Despite this, most students got none of them right and the average mark for that section ended up at around 2 or 3 out of 10. Only 1 of the 1500 received full marks.
It’s hard to know what to do to fix this. To me, the problem appears to lie in the secondary education they receive. High school teachers who barely understand the material themselves, passing on their ignorance to the future generations. One possibility is that all chemistry students are required to do a basic chemistry course at university before they attempt the remaining first year course work. This, however, then becomes a problem of having enough resources. Another possibility is to split the classes so that science students are segregated from the other degrees. This would eliminate the need to cater for an overly large educational diversity, though I’m not convinced it would help the problems I and others see in beginner student learning.
Second and third year chemistry courses here are not compulsory for anything save chemistry related majors. It makes tutoring much nicer, because you deal with students who genuinely want to learn chemistry and for some reason love brutally honest feedback. Provided with the right amount of tutor feedback and right teaching staff, these students learn well and even enjoy themselves. Why then, do only a tiny proportion of these students go on to honors? I know there are some who simply aren’t interested in research – this is something that is being dealt with as the opportunities for research exposure increase. There are some who simply don’t know what they want to do and go on to do other degrees and others are still in the process of completing dual degrees. Can there really be that many of them though? There were about 50 or so chemistry graduates last year, so what are 46 of them doing?
I myself don’t have much of an answer to that. It baffles me. I wonder if maybe it’s the lack of a recruiting process. I know that a number of the biology based schools go to an outrageous amount of effort to attract students into doing honours and higher degree programs with them. It seems to work quite well for them. Here at least, the chemistry department tends to lack that initiative and students are often unaware of the opportunities without looking for it themselves.
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