Revisiting Chemistry's QAA Subject Benchmark Statement: A Case for ChemEd
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is responsible for articulating the sorts of things which should happen in a Chemistry degree. This ‘benchmark statement’ seeks to capture the skills and subject content which a Chemistry graduate should have. While these documents are (currently) public, and might in principle be consulted by an employer considering a job applicant with a BSc in Chemistry, the main use of benchmark statements is to guide people creating or enhancing creating Chemistry degrees.
The QAA benchmark statements are being reviewed. Some of this is a matter of standardising the stylistic aspects across disciplines, but it seems (from out here in the cold) that there might also be some scope to revisit what a Chemistry degree should contain. This gives the community a chance to change what we think a Chemistry degree should be.
I wish to make a case for Chemistry Education to be included as a core part of an undergraduate Chemistry student’s education. This might include particular items like Johnstone’s Triangle, constructivism, and cognitive load. Or it might not - the level of detail in the benchmark statements mean that specifying topics is probably inappropriate. I understand that something will have to be cut if this gets put in; I believe this will be worth it.
I have three arguments.
1.Chemistry Needs Chemistry Teachers
Chemistry teachers at secondary level are hard to recruit and hard to retain (it’s a whole EiC theme); exposing UG students to a few of the core ideas could plausibly address both. Placing ChemEd alongside catalysts, heterocyclic reactivity, and the Beer-Lambert Law will help emphasise that teaching is an advanced disciplinary skill. Giving students time to chew over some important models before they get thrown into (e.g.) a PGCE year will equip them with a few of the conceptual tools which might mitigate negative aspects of a necessarily-challenging entry into teaching.
In HE, it seems likely that academic Chemists could teach even better. There are few subjects as conceptually demanding as Chemistry, and having graduates with an inkling of - say - cognitive load before they ever start lecturing would be wonderful. We should be looking to make systemic improvements to out teaching pipeline.
2. Employers Need Sophisticated Communicators
Not every graduate ends up teaching formally, but a disciplinary training should help graduates to communicate their understanding. This communication is much-neglected skill within a framework which lionises Problem Solving, yet it is also one of the skills which employers value most highly. ChemEd speaks to the very heart of what meaningful communication is; we should recognise its value by formalising it in our curriculums.
3. Undergraduate Chemists Need to Maximise Learning
Learning Chemistry is hard. Really hard. The pace of learning, breadth of learning, and conceptual detail of topics in Chemistry are hard to keep up with. Alongside this, a staggering commitment to lab teaching chomps up students’ Bologna hours.
A key skill for completing the degree therefore becomes ‘learning how to learn’. UG Chemists need to spend their limited time in the most efficient way. Rigorous, academic insight into the process of learning seems like a really valuable use of this scarce time.
I understand that my view is only one among many. I see a strong case for including some Environmental Chemistry in our degrees, for example: it helps to link submicroscale teaching to those macroscale effects which seem to be motivating many of Gen Z to become politically active citizens. Whatever gets added, something must be lost - we are already covering too much content in our degrees at the moment.
Even if ChemEd does not make the cut into the BSc content, a really positive small step would be to explicitly recognise ChemEd projects in the Master’s level project descriptors. This isn’t even contentious any more - it would simply describe existing sector-wide practice.