Field of Science

Does modern day college and graduate education in chemistry sacrifice rigor for flexibility?

This is what I love about blogging; it's the classic "one thing leads to another" device. The previous discussion on the paucity of thermodynamics in college coursework led to a more general and important exchange in the comments section that basically asked: Are we sacrificing rigor for flexibility by giving students too much freedom to pick and choose their courses?

The following sentiments (or variations thereof) were expressed:

- There should be a core curriculum for chemistry students that exposes them to mandatory courses in general, organic and physical chemistry at the very least. These requirements seems to be more widespread among physics departments. To my knowledge, Caltech is one of the few schools with a general core curriculum for all science majors. How many other schools have this?

- Part of the lack of exposure to important topics in grad school results from emphasizing research at the cost of coursework. And this is related to a more widespread sentiment of woe: it's become all too easy to get a PhD, partly because of the curse of academia that encourages one to become a glorified technician at the cost of instilling creative scientific thought. The belief is that many professors (and there's many exceptions) would rather produce well-trained manual laborers who contribute to the Grant and Paper Production Factory than independent scientific thinkers who can assimilate ideas from diverse scientific fields. You shouldn't really get a Ph.D. just for putting in 80-hour weeks.

We need to hold students to higher standards, but I think this is not going to happen until the publish-or-perish culture is fundamentally transformed and the movers and shakers of academic research take a hard look at what they are doing to their graduate students.

- Many textbooks are mired in the age-old, classical presentation of thermodynamics that emphasizes Carnot cycles and Maxwell relations much more than any semi-quantative feel for the operation of thermodynamic in practical chemical and biological systems. We are just not doing a good job communicating the real-world importance of topics like thermodynamics; add to this students who are not going to study something if it's not required and we are in a real bind.

- Physical organic chemistry - the one discipline that can naturally build bridges between physical and organic chemistry - is disappearing from the curriculum. Those who intellectually matured in its heyday were naturally exposed to thermodynamics and kinetics. Graduate students in organic chemistry shouldn't be able to get away with just synthesis and spectroscopy courses.

- Matt who, unlike most of us armchair philosophers, is a live professor at an actual research institution, makes the point that we should do an outstanding job of emphasizing thermodynamics in the freshman general chemistry class. We should do such a good job that students should always be able to connect those concepts to anything else that they study later. As Matt recommends, we could include the more qualitative important real-life applications of thermodynamics (and not just to antiquated heat engines) like those in drug discovery in this gen chem class.

All great points in my opinion. I have strong feelings about all this myself, but I have not done any detailed study of college curricula so my opinions are mostly anecdotal. Feel free to chime in with actual data or more opinions in the comments section.


  1. This discussion seems to be inspired by a group of students paralyzed with fear when asked a question by GW. They probably thought he would ask them a question about thermo if they raised their hands. No pressure there.

    But seriously, I think ACS-approved undergrad chemistry curricula at most US institutions have just what you say they should--foundational courses that include organic, physical, analytical, inorganic, and biochemistry.

    1. Yes, I don't know how many universities have ACS-approved courses though. And as Jan pointed out below, it's really what you do in these courses; the textbooks you recommend, the topics you cherry-pick (you always hav to cherry-pick) and the relevance to daily life you can describe.

  2. The question is not really what courses students take, but what they get out of it. I have taught introductory thermo/statmech for a long time and have recently switched to peer instruction (clickers and such) where you actually test students understanding on a near daily basis. The results are quite clear: the key conceptual points are lost in a sea of abstract and mathematical concepts. As a result students fail to see the relevance of most of it and promptly forget it.

    I wouldn't be surprised if some of the students in the audience mentioned in the last post are currently enrolled in a thermo course but - quite rightly - fail to see the relevance of the Carnot cycle, adiabatic gas expansion, fugacity, Lagrange multipliers, or the efficiency of (steam) engines to what GW is talking to them about.

    We really need some new and radically different textbooks - or, in this day and age, blogposts? - in this area. Dill's book is a big step in the right direction but it is in many areas still "too deep" and "too much".

    1. Oh, one more thing I learned from polling the students: you have to hit the key conceptual points again and again or they're lost. %-right on the exact same question can drop from 100% to 30% in as little as a week. It takes at least 3 or 4 times before it sticks for the majority of the stúdents. Not surprising really - you don't learn how to catch a ball by doing it once (or by having someone explain it to you once).

    2. Yes, I think that's probably the case. Most of the students in the audience might have been surprised to know that thermodynamics, stripped of its mathematical machinery, can be so useful in giving you a semi-quantitative understand of protein-ligand interactions. I think textbooks with a completely new perspective are especially needed for thermodynamics. You can get a flavor of this in the modern physical organic chemistry textbook by Anslyn and Dougherty; we need something similar for thermo.

  3. Just to clarify - my comment regarding a core curriculum in the other post was directed towards graduate programs. (Dealing with undergraduate education in the US is a whole different story.) The way that I have seen/heard of this being implemented is that there is an actual "core course" - something that all new graduate students take, and is typically team-taught meeting 3/4 times a week - and one still has to take a certain amount of coursework in one's area of interest and some distributional requirements.

    All of this discussion reminded me of the post you did a while ago about "black boxes" in research, though. I'm sure there's a striking insight to be said here, but as it's the weekend, it will have to wait.

  4. Yes, I think you may be on to something there, since the "black boxes" have at least some direction connection to the quality of scientific education.

  5. Hi Ash,

    Regarding the Caltech undergrad core curriculum (were you an undergrad?), requirements were recently reduced for 2013 and beyond, removing Ph2 and Ma2(thermo, quantum, probability and statistics, and differential equations). Although I struggled through these myself, and the chem majors do take their 1 year of pchem in their required courses (1 quarter of quantum and 2 of thermo) I'm a little saddened by this. So are other former students. Chalk it up to nostalgia, maybe.

  6. Entering this debate late but perhaps the most valuable contribution we can make is to supply some context to make a real world case of why it is important. Specifically the future demands of chemists in drug discovery.

    The network pharmacology view of biology suggests the challenge set for chemists will change from that traditionally undertaken. It will involve less about getting a compound to bind as tightly as possible to a specific protein but rather achieving a spectral binding impact of combinations of compounds at lower binding affinities. This will be supplemented by challenges created by protein conformation and by the desire to avoid binding to spectrums of alternative proteins responsible for adverse reaction. This is likely to be an exciting and highly interactive environment for tomorrows chemists.

    The aspects that truly govern ligand interaction biology will have to be fundamentally understood including thermodynamics and the realities of electrostatic compatibility. This looks like the future to us and if there is a struggle to make thermodynamics sexy enough for undergraduates, maybe this can help.


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