Final year undergraduate chemistry projects

In a piece I’ve written for the March issue of Education in Chemistry, I make the case for the continuation of a strong research input into undergraduate chemistry education, including teaching by active researchers, and the use of examples from research in lectures. However, in the article I also express concerns about the future of undergraduate chemistry research projects, which I’ll discuss further here.

Undergraduate chemistry research projects are very work-intensive for supervisors, unless they have research students or postdocs who can help with everyday supervision. But even with that help (which obviously isn’t available to all), the supervisor still has to think up the project, monitor progress, and come up with work-rounds for problems that might occur along the way. Then they have to offer advice on report writing, and (usually) be one of the markers of the final report.

All this is happening at a time when student numbers are increasing, and when academic staff have more and more expectations made of them, especially in terms of securing grant funding. Of course, the situation post 2012 is unclear, but one thing is certain, and that is staff numbers will not increase!

Undergraduate research projects remain popular, and seem to be an important recruitment tool, given the number of times potential students and their parents ask about them on Visits and Open Days. But I suspect that the current arrangements are unsustainable, and in the future we will be unable to promise every student a research project.

How we get round this problem is certainly a matter for future discussion, but one possibility is requiring a mark threshold to have been reached. I know this is done in some Life Sciences departments. Another possibility is team projects; our Forensic Science students do projects in groups of up to four, for example.

However the problem is solved, I would hope that all students will get some experience of research even if they don’t actually do a project. Targetted dissertations on research literature, or paper reviews, are possible alternatives. This will require careful ‘selling’ so as to avoid a negative impact on student recruitment.

Comments on this, and on the article, when it is published, will be most welcome!

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