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Report: Chemistry Programs Need to Increase Real-World Problem-Solving

Science isn't immune to the education-work skills gap that employers complain about in other fields. A recent survey found that most people in the chemistry field consider current curricula inadequate for helping STEM students prepare for future careers. The survey was undertaken by Elsevier's Reaxys division, which produces a chemistry research platform. The survey queried 186 chemistry professionals, researchers, students and educators.

According to the research project, about six in 10 respondents (61 percent) believe that the curriculum spends "too little time … solving real-world problems," resulting in graduates who aren't "fully prepared for the working world."

A full third of respondents (36 percent) consider the inability of the chemistry field to recruit a sufficient pipeline of students to be a "crisis for the industry." Twenty-six percent of survey participants pointed to chemistry's "reputation for not being innovative" or "green" as the main causes for the lack of interest among students for the field.

A lack of overall understanding about chemistry also plays into its inability to woo new students. More than half of respondents (51 percent) said that when it comes to the "great challenges of the 21st century, such as providing clean water, food security and renewable energy," society as a whole "has no understanding of the role chemists played in finding solutions."

The areas where course content should give more focus are cross-disciplinary knowledge (specified by 26 percent of respondents), the ability to collaborate with researchers in other fields and geographies (21 percent) and being able to present a commercial case for research funds (16 percent). Those skills are areas that align closely with the top attributes chemistry researchers need for success in work: cross-disciplinary knowledge (selected by 72 percent of respondents), collaboration skills (59 percent) and the ability to present a commercial case for research (45 percent).

More than eight in 10 respondents (84 percent) suggested that it's "crucial" or "very important" for education institutions to boost the "technological exposure" they give to students.

A quarter said that a career in chemistry might encompass "uninteresting work and poor remuneration." As researcher Christina Valimaki, a senior director in Elsevier's Chemicals division noted, "Unless such perceptions change, it doesn’t matter what educational institutions do."

"These findings suggest academia needs to work more in sync with industry to produce the types of skills required for graduates to succeed in the future," added Tim Hoctor, vice president of professional services for Elsevier. "The question is not whether educators are aware, but whether what is being done is enough. Current curricula should be examined to ensure that knowledge and theoretical basics are balanced with learning to think creatively and scientifically about how to solve practical problems."

Additional findings are available on Elsevier's survey results website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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