The traditional chemistry department has changed for good. Jonny Woodward uncovers the new face of higher education in chemistry

The traditional chemistry department has changed for good. Jonny Woodward uncovers the new face of higher education in chemistry

The university degree - once a formal experience for the privileged few - has been dramatically transformed in recent years by changing priorities and cutting-edge technology. Politics has applied different pressures and created fresh opportunities for higher education, while educational research has revealed - and allowed educators to exploit - exactly how people learn. Chemistry has entered a new educational age. 



Electronic tools such as podcasts are often employed as teaching methods

Technology has had the most striking and direct influence on the appearance of a chemistry department, and there are few aspects of teaching that remain untouched by the multimedia magic wand. ’Chalk and talk’ is still with us, but it is now often usurped by an all-singing, all-dancing computer-rendered presentation.  

PowerPoint is now the norm for a university lecture or tutorial presentation, and for chemistry in particular, it can be of huge additional value. At its best, a PowerPoint presentation can be used to provide superb quality representations of the molecular world, from hydrogen to DNA in two- and three-dimensional models. Interactive applets can show how, for example, the molecules in a gas behave as the pressure and temperature are changed. Animations can illustrate reaction mechanisms and NMR relaxation processes in the rotating frame.  

And electronic tools are not just for lecture notes. Most chemistry departments now host notes, discussion boards and other electronic resources in online Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). This is increasingly becoming the hub of many chemistry modules. As well as providing such electronic resources for students to access, many departments deliver assessments - both formative (to help students) and summative (to grade students) - via VLEs. Students also commonly produce electronic Personal Development Portfolios (PDPs) to prepare themselves for employers.  

Email is now a ubiquitous communication tool, and social networking sites are also beginning to play important roles in the way students interact with each other and with their departments. Facebook, one of the most popular social networking sites, started life as a university communication tool and virtual departments are beginning to appear in the three-dimensional virtual world, Second Life.  

The podcast (in both audio and video flavours) has been quite extensively employed as a teaching method - usually as a means of providing background information or additional material. And many academics are now also becoming accomplished bloggers (see Chemistry World, December 2007, p46). 

The discerning educator 

Technology can be used to enhance the learning experience of students, but the latest tool isn’t always the best, and it is important to be selective. A blackboard is a far more appropriate medium for illustrating the use of curly arrows than a PowerPoint presentation. However, an electronic whiteboard, which can record the way the mechanism was drawn, retains the power of the blackboard but allows students to relive the experience from their computer while they study or revise.  

The great challenge for academic staff is to think about the ways that they employ technology rather than using it blindly, and this is where educational research starts to reveal its benefits. At an even more fundamental level, the internet now means that we can obtain access to chemical knowledge and data almost instantly from almost any location. Today’s students do not reach for a copy of Atkins, McMurry or Cotton and Wilkinson, but for Google or Wikipedia. Since these information sources are so accessible, it begs the question: should our students learn huge amounts of chemical information, or the methods to process that information? 

Digging a little deeper, beyond the new technology, uncovers entirely new approaches to teaching and learning. One such approach is Problem Based Learning (PBL) - alongside the related approaches of Context Based Learning (CBL) and Environment Based Learning (EBL). This turns the traditional approach to teaching chemistry on its head, and has evolved from techniques originally applied to the teaching of diagnostic medicine.  

The idea is that instead of telling students they need to know a particular piece of theory and expounding it to them (a teacher-centric approach), the students work in teams to solve messy, real-world problems that reveal the need to understand the relevant theories. Whilst students learn the necessary chemistry, they also develop a far greater range of skills in a very natural way, including teamwork, communication and presentation skills, research skills, time management and planning.  

Such skills are now considered key ingredients of a chemistry degree. The aim is for graduates to be prepared for the real world of work, and able to apply the knowledge and understanding they have developed during their studies. To best serve a diverse student populace, universities must provide a learning experience that is guided by the student, as different people learn in very different ways. These ideas extend from the way we deliver information to students, right through to the way we assess their abilities. One size no longer fits all. 

The shift from a teacher-centric to a student-focused approach is quite a recent trend in higher education chemistry teaching and in many ways is still in its infancy. Pedagogy (the science of teaching) has been much more prominent with respect to teaching children rather than adults, and for many chemistry departments, the idea of doing scientific research into how students learn and how to best facilitate this process represents a new arena. Fostering the movement into a new era of evidence-based approaches to teaching is the UK’s Higher Education Academy (HEA), based in York (previously the Learning and Teaching Support Network). 

An essential part of a chemistry degree is practical work, which is also undergoing change. We live in a society obsessed by health and safety, and the risk assessment is an obligatory and appropriate part of modern practical work. Traditionally the key roles of practical experiments were to develop technical skills and to reinforce the concepts being studied theoretically. These roles remain, but are now coupled with the aim of making students expert problem solvers and to encourage them to think about experimental design. 

Technology also has its role to play in practical work; from the use of computers for dry practicals, simulations and data analysis, to modern instrumentation and multimedia presentations for illustrating experimental methodology. A modern teaching laboratory might look quite futuristic to some. An excellent example is the ChemLabs CETL (Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning) at the University of Bristol, UK, which has state of the art teaching laboratories and undertakes R&D into the most effective methods for designing and delivering practical work, from both educational and logistical perspectives. 

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) 

The HEA supports pedagogical research, development and implementation across UK HE institutions. It is divided into subject centres, including one for the physical sciences directed by Tina Overton, a chemist at the University of Hull, who describes the efforts to move to a more student-centred approach as one of the most beneficial changes in HE chemistry in recent years.

A force for change 

Government policy, and the internationalisation of teaching standards, have both been key drivers of change in the modern chemistry department. 

In 1997, a committee led by Ron Dearing - a former chancellor of the University of Nottingham, UK and now a member of the House of Lords - delivered a report to the UK government that made recommendations for the ’purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education’. In response, the government set a target to achieve a figure of 50 per cent of young people going into higher education by 2010. This target has not yet been met, but there has been a substantial upward trend - the current figure is around 45 per cent according to 2005/6 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).  

The higher number of students in higher education has increased the diversity of those who now study chemistry - both in terms of their background and their background knowledge. This has presented universities with a challenge over how to best serve their changing audience. And developments, both in technology and in our understanding of how people learn, have started to provide solutions.  

UK government policy has had its own significant influence on chemistry teaching in universities. The introduction of fees has fundamentally changed the way in which many students consider their options post-school. Student debt is a major concern for many young people, and can even serve as a barrier to higher education for debt-averse families - usually from those of lower socio-economic status.  

But this also works in reverse. There are signs that the introduction of fees is actually beneficial for certain subjects - including chemistry. Students are often much more careful about their selection of degree course when a substantial amount of their own money is at stake. Chemistry continually scores highly as a degree course with considerable ’value added’, meaning that chemistry graduates usually go on to be considerably better paid than students without a degree qualification.  

We live in a time of league tables. The scores of institutions with respect to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Teaching Quality Assurance (TQA) schemes can be major factors in students’ choices when planning their education.  

In 2005, the UK’s National Student Survey was launched, gathering information from a huge number of final year undergraduates across the UK about their experiences at university. As a result, students applying to study chemistry are now increasingly well informed and have a very clear expectation that they should receive good value for money from their education. 

Chemistry For Our Future (CFOF) 


The forerunner to the CFOF project was the National Aimhigher Project, Chemistry: 

The Next Generation (CTNG).  
CFOF is funded by Hefce and is currently in the pilot stage. It is subdivided into four key themes:  
1) National rollout of CTNG  
2) Supporting key educational interfaces 
3) Curriculum development 
4) Smarter use of existing laboratory facilities.  

It is being delivered by chemistry departments across England and is managed by the RSC. 

International movement 

Changes in HE chemistry teaching are happening across the globe. The increasing growth of Europe as a collective is now starting to impact on the manner in which degree courses are delivered. Standards need to be adopted across the EU and this has led to the Bologna process, which involves 46 countries and aims ’to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010’ (see Chemistry World, December 2006, p50).  

One framework that has gathered momentum has launched the standardised degree qualifications known as the Eurobachelor and Euromaster. The RSC is also involved in the Bologna process. In particular, it forms one of the sub-strands of the ?3.6 million Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) funded National project, Chemistry For Our Future (CFOF). The Bologna process has had little direct influence on UK chemistry departments to date, but it is certain to have a major effect in the mid-term future. 

In terms of educational development, the US is particularly innovative. And the chairman of the RSC’s Education Division Council, Stuart Bennett, believes that the UK should follow its example. ’The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research into higher education on the same basis as it does for the specific science disciplines. Similar funding is essential in the UK if we are to be able to be better teachers, and students better learners,’ he says. Links between US and UK chemical education communities have been strengthened by the efforts of the RSC and American Chemical Society. 

The University of Delaware in the US is particularly active in the development of PBL. George Watson, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Deborah Allen, associate professor of biology, are referred to by the university as ’PBL pioneers’. They have travelled to schools across the US and in other countries including Peru and Turkey, helping teachers understand how to employ PBL techniques.  

Chemistry CETLs   

In 2005, Hefce established 74 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) across England. There are two chemistry focused centres, at Nottingham Trent University and ChemLabs at Bristol University.

Both have broad-ranging remits to develop and enhance the teaching and learning experience in chemical sciences and to disseminate good practice throughout the HE chemistry community. 

Looking forward 

This is just a snapshot of the many changes for higher education in chemistry, and things will continue to evolve. Universities are already looking at individually tailored student contracts that establish an agreement between student and institution over their respective roles in the educational process. Institutions will also need to embrace a student population that is increasingly international. There will be an expanding need for ever-greater flexibility, including part-time degrees, distance learning and lifelong learning. From a subject perspective, the interfaces of chemistry with physics, materials science and biology will become increasingly important, as will new interfaces with other disciplines.  

There will be fashions to deal with (in recent years, chemistry with forensic science has been an essential ingredient of many departments) and opportunities to exploit (society’s increasing dependence on technology). Very soon the majority of our students will have direct, efficient access to cyberspace in the palm of their hands and perhaps in the more distant future, wired directly into their brains.  

It is up to our universities to consider and respond to the coming changes to ensure that our discipline remains vibrant and produces students who promote it, and who can undertake new chemistry at the cutting edge. 

Jonny Woodward is a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Leicester, UK. He won the 2007 RSC education division’s HE teaching award