University admissions tutor Andrew Parsons thinks students aren’t opting for chemistry because its applications are unclear. He recommends resources for students to discuss real-world context, which could also help them with university applications

After many years of well-publicised and significant increases in university chemistry applicants (from 18,590 applications in 2008 to 31,105 in 2015), there was a dip. And not just a small dip. There were over 4000 fewer applications to study chemistry in 2017, compared to 2015.

Could this just be an effect of demographics? There are fewer 18-year olds in the UK population and a lower number applying to study at university – in 2017, overall applications were down by 4% – but this does not explain the severity of the drop for chemistry (>13% over two years) or the fact that subjects like biology have remained buoyant. It can’t be down to the fact there are fewer students studying chemistry beyond age 16 either – last year the Royal Society of Chemistry proudly advertised the increasing number of students now studying A-level chemistry (>50,000 in 2017), overtaking history as the 4th most popular A-level.

So, what else could it be? Could it be the changes in the chemistry A-level curriculum, with the associated changes in assessment, including practical work? I think it could be more to do with chemistry being seen as an enabling subject at school level, required, for example, to get a place to study medicine, dentistry, veterinary science or another biology-related discipline.

It is this question that, as a long-serving admissions tutor, most intrigues me. I wonder whether students appreciate all the avenues open to them through pursuing chemistry at university? Take for example, antibiotic resistance. We will all have seen the startling headlines, such as ‘by 2050 one person will die every three seconds if we don’t tackle antibiotic resistance’, further emphasised, very recently, by the UK government pledging a further £31 million for the development of new drugs and diagnostics.

Do students appreciate the important role that chemistry plays in modern antibiotic research, an area that many relate more closely to biology? Not only are chemists isolating new antibiotics (with promising lead compounds isolated from such diverse sources as ants, maggots and platypus milk), but they are also determining their structures and developing efficient and green synthetic approaches to lead compounds and analogues. In today’s increasingly interdisciplinary research teams, chemists have a crucial part to play in tackling challenging global problems, like antibiotic resistance.

A subject like antibiotics offers a huge talking point and provides many learning opportunities for chemistry students. These include, for β-lactams like benzylpenicillin (penicillin G), the opportunity for students to identify carbonyl functional groups, spot chiral centres, and appreciate mechanisms of action – the ring-opening of the β-lactam ring provides a beautiful real-life example of nucleophilic acyl substitution (or nucleophilic addition-elimination) reactions.

The ring-opening of the benzylpenicillin-lactam ring provides a real-life example of nucleophilic acyl substitution

Source: Andrew Parsons

The ring-opening of the benzylpenicillin β-lactam ring provides a real-life example of nucleophilic acyl substitution

End the term with inspiration

Of course, it is not just antibiotics that could capture the hearts and minds of our future research chemists. We have a plethora to pick from.

I developed a free online course, Exploring everyday chemistry, to bring together the underlying chemistry behind perfumes, brewing and sport, as well as antibiotic resistance. Over four weeks, learners can tackle a topic per week at their own pace. The course emphasises how we know information instead of what we know. It also incorporates FutureLearn’s social learning pedagogy, which encourages students to share and discuss ideas and findings with their peers.

Four pots of household spices covered in cling film - one is mouldy

Source: Andrew Parsons

Students can probe the antimicrobial activity of their own household spices using rice pudding

There are opportunities for learners to contribute real-world discussions (facilitated by undergraduate York chemists), try quizzes (some with prizes), learn about modern research and undertake kitchen experiments. For example, to probe the antimicrobial activity of household spices using rice pudding. Crucially, it allows students to build on their A-level chemistry course, showing new applications and allowing them to develop valuable independent learning skills.

By emphasising the chemistry issues in these real-life contexts, relevant to students themselves, their families and peers, I hope it motivates students to learn, as well as giving an insight into what university-level chemistry can offer. So, why not encourage your students to give it a go over the summer? It will stand out positively in their UCAS personal statement, especially those applying for chemistry-related degrees, of which I am hoping there will be an increasing number.

Andrew Parsons is professor of organic chemistry and admissions tutor at the University of York and lead educator on the online course Exploring everyday chemistry