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Striving For Flexibility, Many College Chemistry Departments Are Changing Requirements

Lucy Perkins

So you want to go to college and major in chemistry? Didn’t think so. The number of students in the major has never been big at small liberal arts schools. Some schools, like Davidson College, are making it easier to complete a chemistry major to attract more students. 

Davidson professor Erland Stevens is teaching organic chemistry to a group of about 15 students. To an outsider, this class probably doesn’t look any different than it did a year ago – tired students following along as best they can for 8:30 a.m. But, it used to have a different name. In fact, all of Davidson’s chemistry classes have changed names as a part of a big retooling of the chemistry department.

The changes are designed to make it easier to earn a chemistry degree by making classes more flexible.

Until this year, all chemistry majors had to take 11 chemistry courses in a specific order. Professor Stevens – who is also a co-chair of the department – who was the department chair when the changes were approved – says the old system was a pain for students and faculty.

"It’s restrictive. And it feels kind of artificial, it feels like something we should be able to control, but we couldn’t. It was also inflexible for the faculty members. Because we required all these different courses, that means every course had to be offered every single year," he says.

Stevens and his colleagues wanted students to be able to declare a chemistry major after their freshman year without stressing about completing everything not only on time, but in the correct order, to graduate in four years.

Chemistry majors now take five introductory courses in any order before moving on to five in-depth courses – with more options available. For example, students can take more specialized courses in biochemistry, instead of being worried about completing a second semester of physical chemistry.

Chemistry major Jessie Walter says the new flexibility allowed her to study overseas, which is a big deal at Davidson. About 80 percent of students travel abroad. She says the department changes have already created some excitement.

 "I know some freshman who are already thinking about declaring which like never happened before. The sophomore class is at like 17 [students] or something which is really big for us, it’s a really small department," says Walter.

Credit Lucy Perkins / WFAE
The Davidson College chemistry building.

This new flexibility is a big trend among chemistry departments across the country, says Mary Kirchhoff of the American Chemical Society. That’s the accrediting agency for college chemistry programs. She says 85 percent of the 682 accredited programs have revamped their curriculum since 2008 – when the Chemical Society loosened its guidelines. Kirchhoff says it was a response to schools wanting more control over their curriculum.

"You know, if it’s more flexible, students might find it a little more appealing. Because let’s be honest, if they see all these courses they say, 'Okay, what else can I do?' So I think the flexibility could have the added benefit of attracting more students but that really wasn’t the impetus behind it," says Kirchhoff.

Chemistry grads represent just over 1 percent of undergraduate degrees, according to data from the UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. The institute says less than 25 percent of students who enter college intending to major in chemistry actually end up with a chemistry degree.

At Davidson, Stevens says there were some concerns that changes would weaken the chemistry department.

“The new curriculum is perceived by some people as a watering down of the curriculum. But I think to respond to that concern, you have to think about the old curriculum, it wasn’t perfect," says Stevens.

Most students are happy with the changes, says Jessie Walter. Graduating seniors are the exception – their degrees were earned under the old requirements. Walters says there’s been a lot of friendly trash talking.

"Like, oh it’s not a real major anymore, but they’re just bitter because they’re doing their theses right now and it’s a heightened environment. But other than that, just joking."

It’s inevitable the new curriculum will be tweaked, says professor Stevens. But now, he says Davidson at least has the ability to help its chemistry program evolve with the times.