Splitting Chemistry

Undergraduate courses in Chemistry are to most students an unhappy compromise which satisfies neither concentrators for non-concentrators. The Chemistry Department has begun exploring curriculum changes to remedy the problem, but some of the proposals voiced may do more harm than good.

Because medical schools and other science departments may require two or three years of chemical training, teachers in the Department find that even advanced courses tend to split into two groups. There is a core of serious chemistry concentrators. But there are also many, both inside and outside the Department, to whom chemistry is a tool for some other specialty.

To reach both types of students, the teacher must aim somewhere between their interests, a necessary approach but one which satisfies neither group. Chemistry students argue that there is too little theory. Non-concentrators, the more vocal group, complain that the labs are too long, the courses too hard and not aimed at teaching the material which will be useful in later work.

There are exceptions. Most students applaud Chem 6, and those few in Chem 11 and 12 grumble about the teaching but are enthusiastic about its basic premises. Dissatisfaction appears to center around the large second-and third-year courses -- Chem 20, 40a, and 60.

In part, the discontent arises simply because pre-med students are little interested in chemistry for its own sake. But lack of interest is not the only factor. These students are forced to divide their time with other fields which compete for their attention. A pre-med may be taking biology and math as well as his chemistry course and not wish to slight either.

The Chemistry Departments preliminary plan for change -- which has already been rejected -- recommended that concentration be split into several fields for groups with different inclinations, such as biology or chemical physics.

Insofar as this represents an attempt to add topics of special interest to the "core" course material, these reforms are valuable. But there is a danger that special topics will replace, rather than supplement this core, and that some of the split courses will acquire a heavily pre-med or pre-bio accent and lose their rigor.

Chemistry is of no value when half understood. In order to gain a working chemical knowledge for his specialty, each student needs almost all of what is now taught in the normal three-year sequence. Splitting up the second or third year will almost surely be achieved at the cost of some essential material.

For this reason, it is important that the different approaches offered be kept within the framework of one course, with the exception of a small accelerated group like the present Chem 11-12. The staff could offer variety in a course like Chem 20 by holding sections every week or every other week, where the pure chemist could invstigate mechanisms of reactions and the pre-med could examine the chemistry of hormones. For most lecture meetings, the groups would fuse.

Such an arrangement would be worth the extra expense for sections. Some non-concentrators will complain that these courses are too hard or take too much time, but a thorough one-year study of organic or physical chemistry will never be easy.