Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Mandating Polymer Education

The POLYED groups of the American Chemical Society is petitioning to have polymer education mandated as part of the undergraduate education. Specifically, the current guidelines state "Students should be exposed to the principles of macromolecules across foundation areas, which could then serve as the basis for deeper exploration through in depth course work or degree tracks". The POLYED petition seeks to change the "should" to a "must". You can sign the petition at the link provided above.

I'm not going to.

I am totally unconvinced by any of the arguments provided in support of the petition.
  • "We truly live in the 'polymer age.'" (The snarky side of me is wondering why they just didn't include a link to that infamous opening scene in "The Graduate".) Yes, we truly live in a polymers age. But I've lived in the polymer age my entire 51.5 years. This is hardly a new and unique argument. While academic curricula can be rather slow to change, I don't think that we needed 50 years to decide that polymers are not just a flash in the pan. For 50 years we've lived without a mandatory polymer curriculum and been fine. I don't see that changing in the next 50 years.
  • "Polymers are the highest production volume chemical in the world" I can't believe that someone could even begin to think this. 5% of all petroleum is converted into polymers, and the same amount is converted into other organic chemicals. So sure, polymers are the highest production volume chemical in the world, assuming you overlook all the gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, heating oil and other refined products that make up that remaining 90%. The reason whole economies are shaken by violence in the Middle East or hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico is not because the price of polyethylene is going to jump 5 cents a pound. But let's overlook these fuels as chemicals. The American Chemical Council's number still show that sulfuric acid, nitrogen, ethylene, oxygen, lime, ammonia and propylene are all produced in higher volumes than polyethylene.
  • "[A] majority of chemists currently work in polymer-related areas." You must be kidding. I don't have exact numbers in front of me, but stack up the 100,000 ACS members against the 20,000 members of the Society of Plastics Engineers and decide. Look at all the blogs and twitter accounts of chemists vs. the exceedingly few of polymer scientists (and look at how rarely the chemists' blogs/tweets about polymers). Furthermore, look at their readerships. I'm lucky if I get 4000 hits a month, a number that Chembark or In The Pipeline get in a few days. If you want to feel like an outcast chemist, take up polymer chemistry.
  • "We are simply doing our students a disservice by not ensuring exposure to polymers in their foundation courses or not offering them opportunities for more in-depth study."A disservice? Meaning that we are harming them? (That is what the term "disservice" means. To harm.) I think what they really meant is that it is a lost opportunity. And maybe it is. But consider the consequences of the proposed change that was completely overlooked by POLYED. Since students have only 4 years of undergraduate education, and since that 4 years is already completely filled with the current curriculum, what parts of chemistry that are currently taught should no longer be taught so that we can teach about polymers instead? What goes on the chopping block? Besides, if you want to teach polymer chemistry, there is nothing stopping you. Go ahead and teach it.
An undergraduate education is not designed to teach students about everything they could possibly be exposed to in their careers. As it is, it fails in that regards, as there is nothing taught about patents, FDA regulations for foods, food packaging, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, lab safety, proper waste disposal... The undergraduate curriculum is to give them the fundamentals so that they have some universal basics that they take forward to whatever situations they may face. This is not just something that I read about or thought of; it is how my career has been.

Let me give you a recent example. In my past job, I worked for a contract R & D company. If someone showed up on the doorstep with a problem and a check, we would help them. Consequently, I was exposed to a vast range of industries - aerospace, transportation, construction, healthcare, defense, sanitation...all in just 8 years. People would often be amazed and asked how we could handle such a diverse range of clients since we didn't have the specialization that they thought we needed. The answer was always the same - we would stick to the fundamental chemistry and physics that was in the problem at hand and work off of that. More often than not, I was using ideas learned in my undergraduate education and not my graduate education. That is the sign of a good undergraduate education - it sets you up for whatever comes next and you're never floundering.

If you have a good footing in organic chemistry, learning polymer chemistry is not challenging. There is no need for this proposed change.


Unknown said...

More than half the chemical engineers in the world work with polymers in one form or another. As a graduate of the Polymer Engineering option, your knowledge of polymers can give you an advantage when competing for chemical engineering jobs, Polymer engineer couse should be add in pre-engineering or high school science content.

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~stemdent said...

All I had before beginning polymer chemistry research was general chemistry, and it served me very well. I think that it should be briefly covered for chemistry and chemical engineering undergrads and electives courses offered, but not a mandatory thing. If it's part of the emphasis of your research group in grad school, then maybe more coursework is necessary. Otherwise, I'm not sure how useful coursework will be, especially if you don't work in polymers for your future career.

Bend said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I generally dislike educational mandates. Perhaps I do because I resented the requirement to take an English lit course on my way to becoming a chemical engineer. You take issue with the statement that a “majority of chemists currently work in polymer-related areas.” This is true, if not particularly relevant. Proteins, DNA, carbohydrates are all polymers. A molecular biologist, therefore, is a very specialized polymer chemist. So too are just about all biochemists. Since organic chemists frequently perform addition reactions, which are also sometimes used to make polymers, then they too work in polymer-related areas. So the statement is not incorrect, but, utilizing the broadest definitions of “polymer” and “related” neither is it meaningful. It’s the equivalent of saying that everyone has extensive experience in chemistry because they interact with chemicals all day. Technically true, but meaningless to the point of implying the opposite of reality.

Unknown said...

As a graduate of the Polymer Engineering option, your knowledge of polymers can give you an advantage when competing for chemical engineering jobs,thant's very write, thanks

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Unknown said...


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