Monday, April 13, 2015

The most incorrect article you will read this week on undergraduate chemical education

Chemistry Departments Try to Attract More Students by Retooling the Major 
Universities begin to overhaul traditional curricula in science field that some worry is churning out too few graduates for nation’s needs 
Forget economics. Chemistry might be the real dismal science. 
Undergraduate programs have been characterized for decades by rigid, yearlong sequences of organic, physical and biochemistry classes that emphasized rote memorization and taught about reactions in isolation. They left little room to pursue side passions—and attracted worrisomely few students, policy makers say. 
As business and biology majors get a reboot, chemistry professors find themselves waging a fierce battle to appeal to undergraduates who might want a scientific grounding to pursue careers in forensics, molecular gastronomy or politics, but who are turned off by the degree’s onerous demands...
I think it's rather interesting to note that the number of chemistry graduates is actually up, according to the NSF's most recent data, from 10,388 in 2000 to 12,888 in 2011.* **

The article goes on to suggest that goes on to suggest that the American Chemical Society is an industry group (it's not - it's a non-profit professional society), that medicinal chemistry is useful to attending medical school (nope, not really), and that Emory University didn't tell its students what "bonds" do until their sophomore year. It suggests that chemotherapy and nuclear chemistry are related (uh, sort of, not really?) and that the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University are teaching their students something called "three-step synthesis." What the heck is that?

A couple of other random questions: who interviews for Ph.D. admissions to organic chemistry programs these days? There can't be very many schools that have instituted this. Who are the policy makers who believe that there are a shortage of chemistry majors? I want to know this, so I can egg their homes tell them they're wrong. Which one of you has been through rote memorization for physical chemistry? That's a really dumb approach, so dumb that I doubt anyone actually does it.

Finally, I would really, really, really like to know this: who is responsible for this mess of an article? There are many good articles to be had about innovative approaches to chemical education - this is not one of them.

*link to NSF SEI Excel spreadsheet here.
** Also, holding fire on the headline and subhed, because reporter may not be responsible for them.

36 comments:

  1. I would characterise my physical chemistry education as being mostly about memorising the equations and derivations that we'd be asked about in the exam. I don't know if you'd call that "Rote memorisation" or not. I'm sure there were some A+ students who could sail through physical chem because they had some sort of intuitive grasp of derivations...but that wasn't the majority of us.

    Personally, I don't think you can expect to learn any discipline of chemistry without some degree of memorisation. There so many rules, laws and principles. When you start out it is very hard to grasp the big picture that ties all these random facts together, and I think students only can manage that once they've obtained a critical mass of chem knowledge.

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  2. I'll hazard a guess on one of your questions: The queries the student from St. Ben's/St. Johns got would not have been during non-existent interviews for admission to a graduate program, but rather during individual visits to programs as a PROSPECTIVE grad student subsequent to offers of admission.

    And, in fairness, many students PERCEIVE that they must engage in rote memorization to succeed in chemistry classes (named organic reactions, key equations in P. Chem., etc.) -- and perhaps they even MUST if an instructor engages in what I would regard as the poor practice of testing on such items. Of course, most of us would argue that a good course should focus on unifying concepts, and on teaching how to USE tools, like key equations (which to my mind should always be provided as part of any exam) -- hard to know the precise degree to which the picture of the present in the article is a rhetorical straw man...

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  3. I think my favorite is this one:

    "...and often impressed with her early exposure to methods like chromatography, the separating of organic and inorganic compounds."

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    1. I think it is OK as long as you read it as "separating of organic as well as inorganic compounds"

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  4. Maybe WSJ needs adjunct Chem writers. Poorly paid without benefits, of course.

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  5. I would like to disagree that medicinal chemistry is not useful to med school. Essential? No. But certainly very useful, especially if it's broadly defined to include metabolic transformations and enzymatic reactions that contribute to drug action and disease processes. Learning what happens to drugs when they enter the body is certainly something that would rewardingly inform a medical school education if studied properly.

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    1. I received this tip about selecting a new physician from my former professor:

      1. When the nurse calls "Mr. J." reply "it is Dr. J". Watch the reaction. If you see too much deference - walk away.
      2. Ask the physician about his/her grade in the organic chemistry class. If it was less than A- walk away.

      I don't know about the offices I walked away from. Those that passed the test have been good so far :).

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    2. Seems like a useful set of tests!

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    3. Oh, yes. Also, just trying them makes me an instant celebrity in that office. The service is impeccable from that moment on.

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  6. The journalist, Melissa Korn, has been writing about college education for WSJ since 2011. From what I read this particular article is her deepest dive into the STEM education so far. She may be just writing outside of her element here. I am surprised that the WSJ editors let this fantasy be published.

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    1. Here's her bio: http://topics.wsj.com/person/A/biography/7426. Her background is in English, history and journalism and has written about higher ed for some time. However, she does not have a science background nor is a science writer, which would be helpful, but is increasingly rare among journalists. Here's her Twitter account: https://twitter.com/melissakorn. Her email is Melissa.Korn@wsj.com. You know, if anyone wants to give her feedback.

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  7. Maybe she should take some science classes in journalism school.

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    1. Sadly few do, and few J-schools require much in the way of science courses. In fact, the refrain from journalists and journalism students that you'll hear most are things like: Oh, I hate/am no good at math/numbers. Chemistry/sciences are hard; it all looks like Greek to me.

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    2. This could interfere with their writings about anthropogenic climate change. They might also start to question the 'Republicans = War on Science' meme. And possibly also interfere with their writing on food chemists' conspiracy to poison America. They might also start to wonder about the practicality of forced widespread alternative energy adoption.

      They should probably also be forced to take some math and economics, then there might be more questions about gov't budgets and whether certain initiatives should be allowed to bankrupt legitimate government activities.

      I could also wish that they took some legitimate history, but the ship for that has sailed and may not come back.

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    3. Hell, most of them can't even tell the difference between 'principle' and 'principal.' Just following our Fearless Leaders, I guess.

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    4. A major news organization, unimpeded by any real knowledge of the sciences, predicts the state of the world in 2015:

      http://newsbusters.org/blogs/scott-whitlock/2015/06/12/flashback-abcs-08-prediction-nyc-under-water-climate-change-june

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  8. Just a thought...iodine-131 is used to treat cancers in the thyroid and could be considered chemotherapy, especially considering the manner in which it is usually administered. This wouldn't be the example that I would choose to use for introducing nuclear chemistry but it is not necessarily wrong.

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    1. Yes, that was the source of the "sort of".

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    2. There are compounds that are used as sensitizers in radiation oncology that allow lower does of radiation than would otherwise be required. And there's good old boron nucleus capture therapy as well. Hardly textbook examples and they are still more radiation oncology examples than traditional chemotherapy. Bad writing, in any case. Sounds like Pharmalot needs to offer an in-service to his colleagues on how to not mangle science and technology when reporting on issues related to them.

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  9. I actually think the headline is great (the sub-head, eh, not so much). As an educator, I want to attract more students to chemistry classes WITHOUT attracting majors. However, to take any interesting chemistry courses at most schools, a student must take multiple semesters of chemistry or chemistry and math/physics to qualify, so it would be a waste of time to not be a major and take those classes. Majors in biology, ecology, health sciences, psychology, engineering, and economics (among others, like journalism let's say) would become stronger students (with more valuable/marketable educations) if they could take some advance chem courses.

    All in all, I think you're being a little ungenerous to say it's "shockingly wrong". There are mistakes but it's more imprecise than wrong. Clearly confusion is understandable for someone outside of chemistry. It's hard enough for chemists to understand the issues in chemistry education.

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    1. Point taken, in the sense I get what many chemical educators are trying to do in these intro courses and that's the ~point of the article, not the errors.

      If I were to revise my statement, it would be "an article with a shockingly high number of errors in the details."

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    2. One would hope that a confused reporter would ask enough questions to get the story right.

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    3. While I think standards at WSJ are above average any journalist is an a clock. The "publish or perish" selection is probably even more important at WSJ than in academic chemistry. It is not hard to imagine that a piece like that is pushed out as soon as the more obvious errors are patched.

      Perhaps if one of the sources requested a review of the piece before publishing some corrections could have been made.

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  10. It's true that the chemistry degree is incredibly rigid and offers little opportunity to either break in or break out of the core curriculum. It would be nice to permit flexibility that lets students round out their knowledge/skill set - personally I think young chemists would benefit from taking business, finance, or management classes. Less structure could hypothetically allow people outside of chemistry to establish some science background.

    That being said... larger schools already offer many different tracks for the same "class" (i.e. general chemistry for majors, engineers, or non-majors or organic chemistry for majors or pre-health), which hypothetically could be expanded to include people with more diverse interests. Personally, I think it's the non-majors courses that are the ones we should be "marketing" to more students, and this is my main objection to this article (though there are several).

    There are already enough people with a specific, technical knowledge of chemistry/science while there aren't enough people in the general population with a general, working knowledge of chemistry/science... We need better informed voters/politicians more than we need an increase in trained scientists.

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  11. I think there's something to be said for designing more integrated/interdisciplinary courses for chemistry majors, even beyond the intro level. The borders between organic, inorganic, analytical, physical, and biochem are blurred all the time in research and the real world, but the courses are sometimes taught as if each is a standalone field. Designing courses that aren't based on these distinctions (or at least, that include more interdisciplinary examples) seems useful. That could also make it easier for students to see the big picture and patterns they'd otherwise only get from lots of memorization. I'm not sure if the article was actually trying to make that point or not, but I think it's a valid one.

    I also didn't find that the chemistry major structure at my undergrad institution was rigid or didn't leave room for flexibility and "pursuing side passions" - at least, not compared to the chemical engineering curriculum...

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  12. Just curious: have any of you considered either calling or writing the author of the offending WSJ article?

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    1. I thought about it and decided against writing.

      - The "offense" against me is really minor, if any.
      - I can't educate Melissa Korn on chemistry. She needs to want to learn herself.
      - WSJ has shown good editorial standards in the past. I think this is a minor slip.
      - WSJ is not part of my daily routine and doesn't shape my opinion. It is hard enough to influence media I care about.

      BTW, it seems that spring took a hold here. Time to break out the grill and get some zucchini going.

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  13. Hi SJ,

    Actually, I will be back out east near Philly for a job interview tomorrow. In fact, I actually have taken the Ignorati at WHYY and WESA (the two NPR affiliates in Pennsylvania) to task over the phone and via e-mail about their mythical zucchini shortages. If anyone is interested, then I should at least have their e-mail addresses and perhaps telephone numbers. Name and shame - it can be part of the game!

    Part of me finds it pointless to complain about something without making an effort to at least try to do something about it. The other part of me just wants to commiserate on internet blogs.

    You wrote "Perhaps if one of the sources requested a review of the piece before publishing some corrections could have been made." Ouch! Who would they ask - an ACS propagandist, or one of us? If we can't put our best foot forward, then who will?

    Regarding the plague of media disinformation, I am wondering if there is a possible parallel to a supposed quote by Hitler (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/joseph_goebbels_propaganda.htm): "If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one and if you tell if often enough, people will begin to believe it. “

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    1. It seems that Hitler learned this idea from Stalin, and Stalin from .... I don't know.

      Anyway, I don't see the WSJ piece as a deliberate lie. It is just a piece of sloppy reporting job that happened to be about chemistry. Anything beyond that is a conspiracy theory and I don't subscribe to those.

      The review idea is a hard learned lesson from my own past. Another one is that as soon as I make a request like that the journalists vanish like smoke in Kansas wind. There is always another source a bit more trusty than I.

      In any case, I didn't want the review to propagate my "absolute truth" about anything. Just to knock out the major nonsense.

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    2. Neither do I see the WSJ as a deliberate lie, nor do I believe in conspiracy theories, per se. However, things are never "black-and-white". Among the economic and intellectual environment of chemistry in the context of academia, politics and industry, some parties look out for their own interests, while others do not.

      Imagine, for example, that the ACS Prez would respond to Ms. Korn's article: she would be more likely to offer a correction on the ACS's legal status than she would be to address the subtitle to that article ("science field that some worry is churning out too few graduates for nation’s needs").

      Two different petitions arrived in my e-mail last week with a common topic. That topic was to remove the non-profit status from two organizations which were clearly operating on a for-profit business (the NFL and Blue Cross California). A lot of people are signing them. Frankly, if US chemists can't defend their own interests, then I ask myself if they don't deserve their fate?

      I nevertheless just wrote a polite letter to Ms Korn, asking her if she would like to discuss setting the record straight through a 1-on-1 conversation....

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    3. Great! Thank you for your letter. I think a polite letter and a discussion can prompt at least some interest in educating WSJ about the on-the-ground situation in S(T)EM.

      The self-interest subject is an interesting one. I think left free to decide a vast majority of people would follow their own interest. The difference is how broad is their view of what action is in their interest. People with a long term and broad views may take action that we perceive as either altruistic or very selfish. Others with narrower ideas tend to focus on short term actions with easier to understand consequences.

      I would carefully consider whether someone's action that I don't fully comprehend is selfish and by default hurting the society.

      On the subject of for-profit status of the ACS a mere petition would have little consequence. The ACS status was granted through a special legislation of the Congress. I don't think this can be changed by an executive action by IRS. And yes, I think that funding of the ACS is relying too much on commercial sales. If more funds came from the members (which means higher fees!) the members would probably have more say in the governance.

      I would pay more money to get this kind of deal. I also tend not to sign petitions issued by organization I am not engaged with.

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  14. I second the notion of sending a polite letter to the author. Part of the challenge in educating the public about science and chemistry is to identify when your efforts will help and when they will fan the anti-science flames. The WSJ has very good standards and definitely is worth your efforts. I have occasionally come across some bad reporting in the online edition of the local paper involving science or chemistry, usually a spill. When the by-line is available I write a polite note with the correction and the reasons why it is important. The edits usually show up on-line and then later in print. I usually also receive a thank you. Everybody wins. A little more gentle background information for the author and careful editing could have make this piece quite a bit more accurate and informative.

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  15. Actually, Ms Korn did, indeed personally respond this morning to my letter. Unfortunately, she did not appear to comprehend the magnitude of her errors. Nor did she respond to my direct request for a 1-on-1 discussion. Because of intense preparations for a job interview later on this week, this matter is postponed until afterwards.

    One goal of future interactions with her might be to produce a second article which addresses the issues central to this discussion chain. However, the fact that virtually everyone here comments behind the proverbial protection of anonymity would not help the credibility of such a report.

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  16. Is there any statistics on how many people are graduating with a chemistry degree vs a biology or physics degree?

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  17. The WSJ is a sad shadow of its former self. I got really annoyed when the newsstand price went up, only to have it ever more closely resemble 'USA Today.' The quality of the writing has declined, the politics are veering leftward, and the quality of coverage is deficient.

    It's still better than most US papers, but that's really not saying much. Real journalism in the US can still be found, but one has to look for it - it isn't to be found in most of the major "news" organizations.

    Used to be that Pravda was the joke of journalism. Not any more. Most US "journalism" is party propaganda.

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    1. It's really sad when you realize, you have to go outside your nation's newspaper coverage to get the truth about your own country:

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/11192438/Life-under-Obama-sucks.-And-these-numbers-prove-it.html

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