'...active research chemists should continue to teach, or our students will no longer experience the relevance and excitement that they can bring to the subject.'

Endpoint: Rob Jackson has the last word

Chemistry teacher with students

Source: Cultura Creative / Alamy

The traditional system that has operated in university chemistry departments for many years is that academic appointments have been made on the basis of research expertise, which includes the number of publications and collaborations. This is in no way unique to chemistry as a subject, and is common to most academic disciplines.

However, in addition to pursuing their research, academic staff members give undergraduate and postgraduate lectures, run tutorials and supervise lab classes. While in the past this may have occasionally resulted in some indifferent lecture experiences for undergraduate students, this situation has now largely changed with the foundation of the Higher Education Academy and the introduction of courses on teaching and learning in higher education which are compulsory for new staff members.

Therefore, it remains the case that most undergraduate lectures are given by research-active academic staff members, and in this article I will try to defend the continuation of this system.

Research examples

The main argument for preserving the link between research and teaching is that lecturers can illustrate the chemistry in their lectures with up to date examples. These can be their own research specifically, or from ideas picked up from attending conferences or the literature. 

For example, in my final year lectures on solid state chemistry I have included the latest research developments in lithium ion batteries as an illustration of 'ionic conduction in action', and next year I plan to include transparent conducting oxide materials, whose development is a current 'hot topic' in the field. 

In addition, chemistry courses that include modules on research topics enable academics to cover their interests in detail, so that students are directly exposed to cutting edge research. Students can attend an appropriate number of topics to give them a choice of exam questions, and a relevant paper review can be included as part of the assessment. 

Research projects

For final year chemistry, research projects have been an enduring component of chemistry courses but are becoming increasingly difficult to coordinate, particularly in smaller departments/sections. With increasing student numbers, it becomes more and more difficult for every student to carry out a research project of their choice. This is mainly because of the large amount of contact time involved at a time when academics are coming under increasing pressure. 

There is no easy solution to this problem. Those of us who participate in open days and other student recruitment activities know that prospective students often ask if they will be able to do such a project! It may be that in the future, students are required to reach a particular marks threshold before being allowed to do a project (and I believe this is already done in some places), but for those who do not reach the threshold it is important that they still carry out some kind of research-based alternative activity, such as a dissertation or series of paper reviews. 

Embedding research

It is perhaps less easy to embed research input into first and second year courses, but it is still possible. If, for example, you are giving a lecture on the Schrödinger equation, and you know how it is applied in your own research (or if you have seen it applied elsewhere), you may be able to make your explanation more interesting than if you were just introducing it as another equation.

This general principle should apply across the subject; to take another example, organic reaction mechanisms can be given immediate relevance if taught by someone who uses these concepts on a daily basis in their research.

In January's Endpoint, Professor David Phillips talked about the future of University Chemistry and suggested that there might come a time when not all chemistry students are taught in departments that also perform research. His piece was written very much from the point of view of a large chemistry department like Imperial College where he is Emeritus Professor. I responded to the more general points he raised in my blog. But, as I have tried to justify here, I feel very strongly that active research chemists should continue to teach, or our students will no longer experience the relevance and excitement that they can bring to the subject. 

Rob Jackson is reader in Computational Solid State Chemistry at Keele University, and the views expressed above are made in a personal capacity.

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