Varied and confusing array of chemistry courses on offer at today's universities.

Varied and confusing array of chemistry courses on offer at today’s universities.

Paul Martin and Karen Moss at Nottingham Trent University look at 10 years of university chemistry courses in the UK and worldwide

There is a vast, varied and confusing array of chemistry courses on offer at today’s universities. In the UK alone, there are over 700 higher education courses on offer with ’chemistry’ in the title. We have investigated the shape of modern undergraduate chemistry and how this has changed over the past 10 years and have uncovered a dramatic increase in the number of subjects on offer but a worrying decrease in maths modules.  

Analysing the chemistry content and shape of the undergraduate chemistry programmes currently accredited or recognised by the RSC gives an up-to-date survey of undergraduate chemistry offered by institutions in the UK, and by some in Europe, South America and Asia. 

We have compared 2008-09 first year (level one) content with a similar study from 1998. To collect information we have either contacted heads of department directly or used departmental websites giving detailed modular information. 

We have uncovered significant differences in lower-level content of approved courses - these involve wide-ranging coverage of important areas before advanced undergraduate topics are introduced. 

Employers, universities, and prospective undergraduate students might be interested to see changes in the extent to which certain subjects, including spectroscopy and chemical bonding, are represented in level one courses (see table). Spectroscopy featured in 57 level one courses in 1998 compared with only 33 today. Bonding featured in 41 courses in 1998, compared with 35 today. Similar differences were noted for other subjects. There are certainly more subject areas on offer at level one now than there were in 1998. Overall the number of different subject areas has almost doubled from 32 different areas in 1998 to 61 areas in 2008-09.

A wider variety of areas now dominate level one chemistry with subjects such as reaction mechanisms, periodic table and aliphatic chemistry sharing higher prominence than in 1998. And level one students can now study chemistry in much more diverse modules with titles such as chemistry in the cosmos, nanotechnology, green chemistry, and industrial chemistry.

The price of variety 

So there is much more variety, choice and diversity in modern undergraduate chemistry, but at what price? Alarmingly, together with the fact that course type options can affect mathematical content experienced at level one, our survey also shows that actual mathematics modules have also seen a general and significant movement down the order. 

Meanwhile, surveying the content of chemistry courses at level two reveals that 94 different subject areas are being covered. 

The fact that some 94 different subject areas are being covered at level two - a rise of 33 from level one - shows not only the diversity of the courses but also that some departments are choosing to introduce increased variety, innovations 
or departmental specialities at level two. 

Level two represents an array of subjects that have been advanced further on from level one foundations such as thermodynamics, kinetics or spectroscopy. The larger list of more dominant subject areas suggests that subjects such as quantum mechanics or solid state chemistry are frequently introduced for the first time at level two.

Today, some topics are introduced to a greater depth, some at less depth than in 1998. Some are disappearing from the level one syllabus, or moved to higher levels. 

Some departments, having made these changes to level-one content, have moved some of what might have been previously studied at level one on to level two, without compromising on variety or the development of important concepts. 

So there is a substantially more varied student experience in years one and two than there was 10 years ago, through changes to syllabus and increased option choices. However, we are rather worried that the development of mathematical skills at level two, as at level one, is not appearing frequently. 

Problem-based and context-based learning activities and approach could offer a way of introducing variety without losing content, and could lead to more mathematical practise and content.

Paul Martin is a chemistry lecturer and Karen Moss is director of the Centre for Effective Learning in Science, Nottingham Trent University, UK