Below are examples of research projects within the Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research program.
David Smith discusses the importance of employability skills for chemists Source: Obviously, this is an extreme stereotype, but it sadly has some basis in truth.
Would science really be in a worse position if researchers had the ability to communicate both orally and in writing, and worked in an inclusive manner within teams? But how can such skills be developed, and would doing so distract from teaching core chemical knowledge?
Other skills are often neglected or simply bolted on as an after-thought. In the worst cases, it is hoped that students will magically develop such skills or inherently have them, placing students from less privileged backgrounds or different cultures at a significant disadvantage.
In terms of chemistry, nobody would question that students must develop their understanding of stereochemistry and conformational analysis before starting advanced asymmetric synthesis.
Surely, therefore, students also need to build other skills through structured and carefully designed experiences. We have been attempting this in my own department at the University of York, and in this article, I reflect on the process.
Some universities provide centralised or generic employability skills. In my opinion, this often fails students as it does not harness their subject passion, leaving them disengaged.
Our underlying principle was that all skills should be taught within a clear chemistry context, enabling students to see their relevance and use skills development to support and enhance their understanding of key chemical principles. To create our contextualised programme, we aimed to develop skills progressively by embedding specific activities at key points in the degree.
On an individual level, many of the activities are not unique and are present in degrees at other universities. However, the key aspect is scaffolding them into a coherent whole. Unlike the original, this revised taxonomy explicitly recognises the vital importance of key skills as a discrete and important layer in the learning process; vital if students are going to be successful in translating their fundamental knowledge into original creative research.
I believe this new taxonomy better reflects the role of skills in learning and will encourage their integration into programme design.
Revised taxonomy of chemistry learning including skills Fundamental chemistry The focal point of any chemistry degree is an emphasis on core chemistry — teaching the fundamentals well.
During these, students in groups of five develop problem-solving and communication skills, and engage with academic staff. Chemistry colleges also provide pastoral support and help structure our peer-to-peer mentoring scheme, with senior students volunteering to advise first years and run revision classes in turn developing their own understanding and skills.
It was so satisfying seeing the final video challenging myself and learning new skills. Building on fundamental chemistry, students select context-led chemistry option modules to enrich their curriculum, for example addressing medicinal, environmental or industrially-relevant chemistry.
These options allow students to explore applications of chemistry and discover its impact in a real-world context — vital skills for a modern scientist, or indeed any scientifically literate member of society.
As in any modern chemistry degree, coherent development of practical chemistry skills is vital. Our students spend full working days in the lab rather than performing shorter exercises.
This prepares students for a realistic working environment. Combined with pre-lab online work, it also helps them to think critically, and plan and design experiments, instead of just rushing through practical manipulations.
An innovative lecture course teaching chemical health and safety also supports practical work. Formally assessed via online tests, this helps develop personal responsibility for experimental planning and active risk management — vital skills for future careers.
Independent learning The biggest transition all students should make at university is from being taught to taking responsibility for their own leaning. By the end of their degrees, students should independently interrogate multiple sources, begin to ask questions and draw their own conclusions.
Many students find the transition away from instructor-led learning towards self-directed learning a significant challenge. To facilitate this, we emphasise independent learning early in Year 1, when students engage in an independent-learning course on polymers.
Instilling this independent ethos is of great benefit later in the degree and prepares students for the world of continuous learning beyond formal education. Communication skills To help students develop effective and confident communication skills, we structure activities throughout the degree.
In the first year, all students give oral presentations in pairs and prepare team posters on a practical project. In Year 2, students enhance their verbal communication skills by video-recording a practice group oral presentation.
Watching the video and receiving feedback helps students to reflect and improve their delivery prior to formal assessment. These skills are tested in a scientific literacy examination.
Final year students must prepare a critical literature review, helping to foster critical writing and comprehension skills and develop their ability to communicate and interrelate complex research findings.
In terms of wider communication and outreach skills, all first year students carry out a public communication of science exercise. They either write a popular science article or produce a YouTube video to explain an application of polymer science in a simple way, suitable for A-level students.
Some student videos have had thousands of views globally and been highlighted by international chemistry magazines. BSc students can choose to carry out their project work in local schools, developing and implementing a chemical educational activity with a class of pupils.The Design of Experiment is also influenced by the specific field of science.
Physical sciences rarely have to consider ethics or random fluctuations; one lump of iron, for a chemistry experiment, is usually similar to another.
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