August 4, 2003
Volume 81, Number 31
CENEAR 81 31 pp. 34-35
ISSN 0009-2347


Conference explores different ideas on how to reform chemistry curricula and inspire students


"The time is ripe for major change in chemical education." Those were the emphatic welcoming words of American Chemical Society Immediate Past-President Eli M. Pearce to some 50 educators and policymakers who convened in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer to discuss the fundamental question: If you were going to reinvent chemical education, would it be structured the way it is now?

"Just about everyone I talk to says 'no,' " Pearce said. But as it turned out, the attendees were not in complete agreement. Instead, the answer turned out to be yes, no, and maybe. There was, however, one definite area of agreement that emerged from the ensuing lively two-day meeting: This is not a simple question, and there are no simple answers.

The conference was Pearce's idea and was sponsored by the ACS Society Committee on Education (SOCED). The premise of the conference, titled "Exploring the Molecular Vision," was that most undergraduate and graduate education courses present chemistry as vertically integrated subdisciplines. New material has been added to these courses, but their content--as opposed to the method of teaching--rarely has been pruned or reorganized to take advantage of the new directions and exciting research that chemists are pursuing.

Pearce admitted, "I don't have a detailed blueprint." But he had a set of guiding principles for the meeting: Chemistry is a central and enabling science; chemists should be prepared for a world of work that is uncertain; chemical education should prepare chemists for the challenges of the future, not the past; and chemical education should also stress research programs that challenge students to make meaningful contributions to society.

Attendees represented a wide array of educational institutions: two- and four-year colleges, major research universities, and the National Science Foundation. Daryle H. Busch, University of Kansas chemistry professor, ACS past-president, and SOCED chair, explained that the conference's goal was "to seek, from the vast content of chemistry, an irreducible minimum from which one could best equip ideally educated practitioners of chemistry."

Having set that goal forward, Busch then turned the podium over to Judith A. Ramaley, assistant director of the NSF Education & Human Resources Directorate, who took issue with the concept of an irreducible minimum.

"I think you're going down the wrong path in looking at irreducible content," she said. Instead, "the major challenge facing contemporary higher education is to enhance its relevance and connectedness to the issues and problems faced by the broader society, as these problems are defined by community members and not by academics acting independently of the views of others."

Reform of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics should have six principles, she said:

Major curricular reform must be grounded in a clear institutional mission and a coherent educational philosophy. Such reform is not about "transmitting the knowledge of chemistry. It's about drawing people into the world of chemistry."

Faculty must understand who their students are, their backgrounds, and their educational goals.

Faculty must be supported by an effective infrastructure. People must be patient because it takes a long time to change culture and install significant curricular changes. Undergraduate experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics should be approached from the perspective of a liberal arts education. Reform in education will benefit from close association with reform at the K–12 and graduate levels.

"Chemistry," Ramaley concluded, "is becoming the universal discipline because it infuses, underlies, and enriches every possible subject. We have a remarkable opportunity to change what an undergraduate education is."

With this inspirational message, attendees launched into the hard work. Four panels, each with three or four people, addressed the questions: Who are the practitioners of chemistry, and what are their educational needs? How is the content of chemistry education being changed at present? What are the new frontiers and interfaces of chemistry that impact our discipline? What is the irreducible minimum of chemistry (content, experiences, and skills) that students need to be effective chemists?

Panel presentations were followed by breakout sessions to explore the questions further. After each breakout session, the groups reconvened and reported key points. A dinner presentation by Peter Atkins, chemistry professor at the University of Oxford, Lincoln College, also inspired debate. Atkins talked about nine central areas of chemistry--"the handful of ideas, which, if you master, you will be able to understand the subject." This was nicknamed "The Atkins Diet," but not everyone wanted to be on that diet.

A conference agenda, background readings, many of the speeches and panel presentations, and an eight-page summary of breakout session ideas are collected on the Web at A list of participants can be found here (PDF file). The conference's organizing committee is writing a report and will share its preliminary conclusions and recommendations at a presidential symposium at the ACS national meeting in New York City on Sept. 9. The session will be held from 2 to 5 PM in the New York Hilton in the Bryant Suite. SOCED's final report will be available on the conference website later this fall.

Whatever the final report contains, a number of proposed ideas resonated with a large portion of the audience. For example, nearly all agreed that environmental science and sustainability topics should be key components of any curriculum. The two major proponents of these ideas were William H. Glaze, former editor of Environmental Science & Technology and now on the staff of the department of environmental and biomolecular systems at Oregon Health & Science University, and Terry Collins, chemistry professor and director of the Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.

"These two areas are critical to our future and also serve to attract students to the discipline," Collins said. "A healthy education in chemistry should contain a significant analysis of sustainability ethics. If students think we care about the future of Earth, they'll be lining up to major in chemistry."

Collins told C&EN, "Judith Ramaley got it right. Optimizing content is the wrong way to go. We have to ask ourselves deeply and honestly what's important about the human journey that we're all a part of."

Another area of agreement was summarized by Ronald Breslow, chemistry professor at Columbia University and an ACS past-president. "Students who are trained as chemists will increasingly be working with physicists, biologists, materials scientists, and engineers and less and less with groups that are only chemists," he said.

ACS President Elsa Reichmanis, director of the Materials Research Department at Bell Laboratories of Lucent Technologies agreed, noting this is the model for working in industry. "While today's chemistry students learn the basics of our science, they also need experiences that make them much more comfortable with multidisciplinary approaches to problems. Moreover, they should have many opportunities to work with experts to learn how to cooperate and communicate across traditional roles and disciplines to solve problems and make progress."

Cheryl Martin, director of financial planning at Rohm and Haas, noted, "If you show kids early in chemistry that they will work in groups and solve interesting problems, you can capture them, excite them, and they will attribute that excitement to chemistry."

Getting students inspired about chemistry was high on the agenda. "If we want to juice up chemistry courses," Breslow declared, "we should tell students all the things that are left to do, not all the things we've done." Breslow is cochair of the committee that wrote "Beyond the Molecular Frontier," (PDF file) the National Research Council report that looked at future challenges for chemistry and chemical engineering (C&EN, March 3, pages 5 and 39).

Stanford University chemistry professor Richard N. Zare also received a strong positive reception when he proclaimed: "No one way exists for teaching chemistry. No one curriculum ought to be imposed on the community. What matters most is the teacher, and what matters most about the teacher is that the teacher is able to inspire students to learn something. It doesn't matter what that something is. We need to worry about getting more people interested in science in general and chemistry in particular, not what is the perfect training for future chemists."

Regardless of what happens with the report, the conference succeeded on at least one level. Joseph A. Heppert, chemistry professor at the University of Kansas and a member of the organizing committee, told C&EN that the conference brought together individuals who normally focus either on research or on teaching. "We've seen a great deal of mutual respect for each other and a sense of commonality in their concerns," he said. "You can imagine, in a conference like this, that a perspective could either diverge or converge. But we are converging on what the challenges, accomplishments, and opportunities are" for curriculum reform.