It is time to have a frank talk about the fundamental merits of the college chemistry curriculum. This plan of study has remained substantially unchanged for decades (see comment by bchem). Certainly minor changes occur through nudges and bumps here and there pertaining to details. But in the last generation has there been a dialog or debate on the fundamental assumptions of the common curriculum? And I refer specifically to the ACS certified curriculum, which has been the gold standard across the country. Major changes that I have been witness to mainly accomodate an increased emphasis on biochemistry or new computerized instrumentation. 

The undergraduate chemistry curriculum is a very logical and thorough survey of the three pillars of chemistry- Theory, synthesis, and analysis. This covers the fields of inorganic, organic, physical, analytical, and biochemistry. Along the way we teach a few other areas of specialty by way of electives.

The current program of chemical pedagogy is certainly true to itself. There is genuine concern and care to avoid dilution of the content and over-inflation of grades, generally. The core domains of the subject are sorted out and given special consideration. Much work has been done to spark interest in the field and textbooks seem to be written quite well as a rule.  Resources like J. Chem. Ed. are a continuous stream of clever tools and tricks to make the subject more plain.

Our colleges and universities have been quite good at churning out chemical scholarship. And students are given scholarly exposure in their learning program. Not surprisingly, scholars are very good at producing more scholars.

But has the academy been keeping up with the role of chemistry in the world?  Just look around. How many CEO’s and upper executives in the top 100 chemical companies are chemists? I have not seen this statistic tabulated. But I am confident that relatively few chemists populate those ranks. Those that do often arise through marketing or finance channels.

But why should they? The field of chemistry attracts people interested in science, not business. Chemical educators have a responsibility to educate chemical scientists with a minimum proficiency in the field.  That requires a minimum number of semester hours of coursework within a 4 year period. There is only so much a department can do and so much a student can absorb.

Yet, the purpose of a college education is to prepare a student for a productive life. A learning program that is internally consistent but blind to the needs of the external world is a fantasy. Have we come to value programmatic tidiness more than practicality?

Chemistry is a highly practical field. It involves problem solving and production. Chemists make stuff. Chemists solve problems. Chemists are specialists in the transformation of matter. But chemists do not operate in a vacuum. They do their work for organizations, and there is the rub.

By training, chemists are woefully prepared to function outside the laboratory. And as a direct result, chemists are poorly prepared to leave the lab and function elsewhere in the organization.  Traditionally, education in the organizational arts has been considered on-the-job training. In a sense this is not unreasonable. How can educators anticipate the needs of a student 5 years into the future? 

What is under appreciated by educators and students alike are the many opportunities that will follow for a chemist in industry. Many if not most chemists will come to a fork in the road in their careers. Will they stay in the lab or will they go to the business side? Usually, the path to greater opportunity in a business organization is the business side. Technical sales, customer service, marketing, procurement, management, etc.

I am not proposing that chemistry faculty teach coursework that cover such material. I am trying to suggest, however, that chemistry departments take a closer look at what an industrial career really looks like and try to anticipate a few needs that will arise as a result of this career path. Advisors can talk to students about the possibility of a business minor. An accounting or marketing class could be very helpful for a student who is uncertain about his/her career path. These are painless actions that can be of great use to a graduate.

But there is more than the passive approach of suggesting alternatives to undergrads. There is a more active approach that would definitely serve the needs of students and society alike.

Elective coursework covering intellectual property and patents, business law, the regulatory world (TSCA, EPA, OSHA, CERCLA, REACH, etc.), industrial hygiene, and perhaps most importantly an introduction to chemical engineering. This last item I cannot overemphasize.  Chemical engineering includes the basics of unit operations, process economics, thermodynamics, and controls. I would offer that the whole package could be called Industrial Chemistry. 

There are junior college programs for chemical operators that do provide exposure to some engineering concepts. But this isn’t necessarily for management track graduates.

I would offer that the department with an industrial chemistry program would be very successful in job placement as well as attracting new majors.  Comments?

 

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