Endpoint: David Smith has the last word

In his recent Endpoint article, Colin Osborne (Educ. Chem., 2010, 47 (1), 32) comments that, at university level, the simple solution to the 'maths problem' would be for 'chemistry departments to make a mathematics qualification obligatory', but expresses his fears that this approach would not be possible because of the competitive market that exists in undergraduate recruitment. I'd like to offer him, and the rest of the chemistry community some encouragement, and disagree. 

Why study mathematics?

Math equations on a blackboard

Source: iStock

The benefit to chemistry students of taking A-level mathematics is unquestionable. Analysis of the A-level performance of applicants to undergraduate chemistry degree programmes at the University of Bristol in recent years shows that students who take A-level mathematics achieve, on average, qualifications that are two grades better than those who do not.  

At present, most chemistry departments accept students without A-level mathematics. This presents a considerable challenge both to students and staff since a proper understanding of chemistry relies upon familiarity with basic mathematical concepts. Studying mathematics also helps students in the development of many of the transferable skills that we look for as admissions tutors. For most subjects, the assessment methods at A-level encourage students to learn facts rather than to understand principles. In contrast, in mathematics, problem-solving is an essential requirement to success. 

The time is right for change

The competition for students has meant that admissions tutors have not necessarily been as open as they might about the importance of mathematics. Most would rather set an offer of AAB with A-level mathematics than AAA without, but few have had the confidence to implement this policy when setting their entry requirements.  

I believe, however, that the time is now right for more university chemistry departments to be bold and have the confidence to make A-level mathematics a requirement for entry onto their programmes .     

The popularity of chemistry degrees has undergone a resurgence in recent years, thanks in no small part to outreach programmes. Indeed, the number of students choosing a chemistry degree continues to increase, with the acceptances in 2008 being at their highest level since 1997. 

Furthermore, data from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that the number of entries for A-level mathematics increased by 12.2 per cent in 2009, and are now at their highest level for 17 years.

At the University of Bristol, we have not, in recent years, required a post-16 qualification in mathematics for students wanting to study chemistry, though our published admissions criteria have stated that we prefer our students to have A-level mathematics. This approach was, in part, the result of a desire to ensure that our programmes were accessible to as wide a cohort of students as possible. In truth, however, it also reflected a lack of confidence in our ability to recruit. Instead, we have, like most chemistry departments in the UK, offered an in-house first-year maths unit to help students without a strong background in mathematics.  

However, now that most of our students achieve three As at A-level, we have decided that it is more honest to state the requirement for A-level mathematics explicitly. Thus for entry in 2011 and beyond, we shall be requiring all students to offer A-level mathematics or an equivalent. In the short term this may lower the A-level grades of our intake, but I would argue that the students will be better prepared for their studies and perform better at university as a result.  

I do believe, however, that some university chemistry departments should continue to offer their programmes without the requirement of A-level mathematics. There will always be students who, despite advice given to them about A-level subject choices, will not do the right combination of subjects. Universities have a commitment to widening participation and must continue to offer a route to a degree in chemistry for these students. The programmes can, however, be designed with the needs of this cohort in mind.  

Chemists need maths

As academic chemists, we have struggled for many years to cope with students variable mathematics skills. I believe that we should now draw confidence from the recent upturn in the popularity of our subject and acknowledge openly what many of us have privately always agreed: that a chemistry student should have a solid foundation in mathematics before starting their degree.  

Dr David Smith is deputy head of the school of chemistry at the University of Bristol, Cantock's Close, Bristol BS8 1TS.