The Lab Route to a Chemistry Degree

In his Up Front article "Promoting Undergraduate Science,"

By | May 4, 1987

In his Up Front article "Promoting Undergraduate Science," Eugene Garfield rightly calls for greater participation in research by undergraduates. He points with favor to the British system in which it is common (certainly in chemistry courses) for students in the final year of their three-year degree programs to spend two terms (about 18 weeks) on a small research project. Frequently, when new British chemistry graduates are asked their opinions of the courses they have taken, their project work is the only component for which they express any enthusiasm. It is not unusual for students who have performed poorly or moderately in their first two years to undergo a transformation when they feel the excitement of research. Sometimes they can, by hard work, make up for their previous poor grades and achieve a degree class that enables them to go onto postgraduate work. But often, sadly, it is too late, and one can only regret that they were not allowed to participate in research earlier in their courses.

For 16 years we at the University of Sussex (U.K.) have offered, as an option, a degree program in chemistry called "Chemistry by Thesis." In this program, after six months at the university, students move into a research laboratory alongside postgraduate and postdoctoral research workers, and take up carefully chosen research topics. From then on, the project represents the student's main commitment, and the degree classification is based wholly on his or her performance in it. To ensure that these students acquire a broad background knowledge, they must follow the lectures taken byconventional students, and are examined on the content of each term's instruction. However, they have only to reach a qualifying standard in each course, the level of performance not counting toward their degree assessment. In contrast, the degree class for conventional students is based on their performance on each course, and on a comprehensive final examination at the end of the three years.

All the objections and the predictions of dire failure that were advanced by the many vociferous critics when the scheme was first proposed have quickly proved to be invalid. The program has been eminently successful with the great majority of students who have followed it, and those of us involved in its operation believe that it not only produces capable graduates with substantial problem-solving experience but also develops in them enthusiasm, self-reliance, and creativity, along with the maturity that comes from forming close working relationships with postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers and faculty members.

The one real surprise has been the high quality of the research of which the young students are capable. Several students obtain interesting, publishable results even in their first year of research. In some cases, the external examiners (from other universities) have said they would have approved the thesis, and the student's response to questioning on it, for the award of a doctoral degree had the work been submitted for that degree. (Such a level of performance is not, of course, an objective of the program.) I should, however, emphasize that this route to a bachelor's of science is not, as critics thought likely, suitable only for the most able students, and it can be argued that it is most effective for the intellectually weaker ones provided that they are prepared to work hard.

The one disappointing aspect is the small number of students (two to eight a year) who choose this route, although it is understandable that most university entrants will elect to take the "safe" option of studying for examinations, in which they have been successful in the past, rather than accept the challenge of taking on self-motivating creative activity. I believe that a significant proportion of British chemistry students would be better served by this type of program, but we are unable to keep its existence before the eyes of those seeking university places because of an agreement between British universities banning the advertising of established (as distinct from new) undergraduate courses. Thus, only those who send for a University of Sussex prospectus become aware of the program. Happily, the University of Essex has recently introduced a similar option, and perhaps this heralds its wider adoption. I have no doubt that much benefit would come from its wider availability, and I wonder if one of the more enterprising American universities could contemplate setting up this type of program for the last two years of a four-year degree course?

Eaborn is at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

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