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The "ivory tower" joins the "real world": three methods universities use to promote careers in science.

We all have heard about the crisis in education, the poor public image of chemistry as chemicals are blamed for our world's environmental ills and the international shrinking pipeline of potential scientists and engineers. One of the places where these problems certainly have an effect is on our institutions of higher learning. Studies show that students are ill-prepared for the rigors of university study. Statistics Canada reports that university-aged students are declining in overall number and, even more dramatically, so has their interest in science-related majors. To further compound the problem, the statisticians are saying that in 10 years' time, half of our professors of science will retire.

So, just what are the universities doing about it? How are our universities encouraging a positive image of science, shaping future students interest in science, attracting them to study science and graduating them as advocates of science? This article will highlight three areas where universities are getting involved in improving linkages between education and the "real world" through co-operative education, community outreach and curriculum reform.

Co-operative education meets today's needs

Does co-operative education meet student, employer and university needs in addition to the human resource development requirements of Canada's scientific community?

Rick Reeve, University of Victoria department of chemistry, believes that it does. For the past 12 years, he has been co-ordinating UVic's Chem Co-op Program, placing students in four-month work terms in industry and government laboratories across Canada and abroad. In that time, he has administered 1,100 student placements and seen over 100 students complete the program right through graduation. He can recount scores of success stories that provide testimony to the fact that co-operative education, as it is delivered by UVic, is successfully meeting the needs of its participants.

What exactly is co-operative education? The term comes from the synergistic involvement of the three main participants: students, employers and the academic institutions. At UVic, co-op is viewed as a strategy of applied learning which formally integrates periods of employment in discipline-related jobs with periods of study on campus. This integration creates an educational system that concentrates on course content during the academic terms and on the application of higher-order thinking and workplace skills during the work terms.

Why are students willing to take on the kind of commitment required for a co-op program? They elect to pursue the co-op option because it helps them assess their academic and career plans, make money to meet next term's tuition and living costs, acquire valuable workplace and problem-analysis skills and establish essential contacts in their chosen field. By combining the learning environments found in the lecture halls with those from working one-on-one with research scientists, students gain access to a more complete education.

Also, by having work terms that begin three times a year --January, September and May -- students see more realistic work situations.

One of Reeve's more important functions as co-ordinator is to ensure that each placement matches the student's academic and experiential levels. Typically, students begin the program in positions that feature easy-to-learn, analytical or quality-control activities and work their way up to ones which offer publishable research projects.

Has co-operative education lived up to the faculty's expectations? Has the exercise been worth the cost? For UVic's chemistry department the answer is yes. Its co-op program has grown to be the second largest in Canada, based upon number of placements per year. Comments received from increasing numbers of employers as to the comparative high quality of the students provide positive feedback to the faculty on the relevance of their course offerings. Elsewhere on campus, research shows that co-op students have dramatically lower drop-out rates than non-co-op students, bringing another benefit to the institution. Of course, co-op exists, in some form or another, at many of our universities across Canada and it appears to be a very popular option for an increasing number of students.

Does co-operative education serve just the needs of business and industry, or the scientific community as a whole? A quick tally of UVic's Chem Co-op graduates reveals that 52% went on to pursue an advanced degree (38% to grad school, 14% to professional school). Three of these graduates now hold faculty positions in Canadian universities (one at UVic) and several other direct research teams in industry. Interestingly, 30% of these co-op graduates were women (five are currently in PhD programs) and 40% of the co-op grads who accepted employment after graduation did so with one of the program's participating co-op employers. Apart from a small number (10%) who are unaccounted for, all of the co-op graduates who have completed their schooling are now gainfully employed.

Co-operative education brings students, employers and educational institutions, together to create a human resource development system that combines academic learning in the classroom with practical learning in the workplace. It raises student's awareness of how science can be applied to problems in the real world and provides a supportive structure that encourages them to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level.

Out of the ivory Tower: Community outreach

Although many university faculties participate in community outreach activities, few can compare to the campus of McGill University for October's 1992 Open House. Planned as part of Montreal's 350th birthday celebration, the university will open its doors to an anticipated 80,000 visitors over a period of three days. Special displays and demonstrations will be sponsored all across campus.

How will this community outreach initiative promote science? The department of chemistry's involvement provides a positive and dynamic learning opportunity. Although organized by a few dedicated volunteers, Joan Powers, the department co-ordinator for the event, indicates that commitment to the Open House spans across the department as faculty and students work together to provide interactive exhibits for all ages.

For the young and young-at-heart, David Harpp with help from Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster, colleagues from Vanier College, are slated to enact their very popular presentation "The Magic of Chemistry". Visitors will be treated to demonstrations on the arts of glassblowing and papermaking.

Other displays include the principles of xerography, the analysis of perfumes and colognes, water hardness testing and nylon rope polymerisation and polymerisation in a Coke|R~ bottle. There will be a pulsed nitrogen laser demonstration, as well as displays on atomic line spectra and flame atomic emission spectrometry. Even outside companies are involved, as the departmental organizers have asked CAChe Scientific to provide molecular modelling demonstrations. The Merck Frosst Centre for Therapeutic Research has provided financial sponsorship to fund the departmental events.

What are the advantages of involvement in community outreach? One of the side benefits of encouraging involvement of both faculty and students alike in community outreach is that the students can see from early on in their scientific careers how important it is for scientists to become involved in local educational initiatives. Not only can these activities give the public a positive picture of "real, live scientists", but all the effort that goes into demonstrations like this can become reinforced in a single moment, when the scientist sees a spark of genuine curiosity ignited in a child's eye.

On a similar note, David Humphreys, McMaster University, does over 20 public performances a year of his chemical demonstrations lecture, "The Magic of Molecules", in a variety of settings, including schools, public libraries, church halls and community centres. His goals are akin to other community outreach programs in that the efforts are to enhance the public understanding of chemistry and, in view of its negative public image, to speak out for chemistry. Humphreys indicates that, "The challenge to all those concerned with chemistry, whether industrialists or academics, is to spread the news about the benefits and excitement of chemistry and to communicate its importance to the public at large".

Sculpting the curricula: Shaping the future

It is particularly important that universities are responsive to the needs and interests of students. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the general chemistry and introductory courses. In many of our institutions these are terminal courses or the courses where students decide whether or not to pursue chemistry further.

How can curricula changes promote science? It won't do any of us any good if the students who express interest in science majors or, even those who might elect to take just a few chemistry courses, drop out of these courses because of how the science is taught. Of course, this self-selection process in deciding any potential career happens at all levels, often beginning right down at the elementary school.

However, at the university level, one major hurdle which seems to be getting much of the attention in science is general chemistry. For whatever reason, be it too much content too fast, poorly prepared graduate students teaching for the first time, or a combination of these and other factors, this course seems to be like a giant chasm which many students are asked to cross.

There has been much concern expressed that introductory courses have become too theoretical and that the principles need to be placed in a more relevant context. It is obvious that in order to introduce more material that enhances the image of chemistry and motivates and attracts students, some traditional topics need to be left out of the curriculum. One of the major problems is reaching agreement about what might be left out of the general chemistry course in order to introduce such desirable features as the ability to solve problems and use chemical knowledge. Currently, in the United States, an American Chemical Society task force is grappling with this problem. Although consensus is not easily reached, Humphreys believes that "It is clear that we need to do less rather better. Whatever direction the chemistry curriculum finishes up taking in the next decade, it is apparent that there must be more balance in the curriculum, so that the theory is done in appropriate context. Given the need to motivate students to continue in the study of chemistry, some of the reality which should be included in the general chemistry course should be new or frontier material. The inclusion of recent material and relevant applications would help general chemistry instructors avoid doing theory for its own sake."

Humphreys elaborated this point in his Union Carbide Award address to the CIC meeting in 1991 saying "We need to recognize that in the end, we are not just teaching courses, we are teaching students. General chemistry for students of a new generation must include some real chemistry, some relevant chemistry and some balanced chemistry. Curriculum development in general chemistry should reflect both changes in society and in the aspirations of students. Many students who take the general chemistry course may never be employed as professional chemists. Education through chemistry, as well as education in chemistry, is important for these students. Let us give them a representative experience of chemistry, the words and the music of our broad and important discipline."


It seems fair to say that positive actions, such as the three profiled in this article, can do much to improve the image of science and to provide future scientists for Canada. The key to their success is in providing an opportunity for increased communication between our institutions of higher learning, the labor market and our communities. These initiatives express the need for each of us to be educationally conscious, to reach out and communicate the excitement and challenges of science.


The authors thank David Humphreys, professor of chemistry at McMaster, for his time and contributions.

Rick Reeve, department of chemistry, University of Victoria, B.C. Naomi Yergey, Merck Frosst Centre for Therapeutic Research, Kirkland, Que.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Reeve, Rick; Yergey, Naomi
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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