Chemistry: from Concept to Consumer

CC0 [pixabay]
CC0 [pixabay]
Deborah Fowlis, Careers Consultant, shares with Teaching Matters how interactive workshops with chemical industry experts has helped Chemistry students prepare for the workplace….

Many Chemistry students are keen to use their degree knowledge directly in a graduate job. It’s easy enough for them to get a feel for academic research while they are in the university environment but harder for them to envisage how chemistry can be used beyond this setting. They often ask:

(a) What jobs could a chemist do?

(b) How do chemists fit into the “big picture” in industry?  

McCarthy & McCarthy (2006) demonstrated that business students gained enhanced career awareness from immersion in real life scenarios such as hands-on problem solving and work shadowing (compared to employer presentations or written case studies). Might chemistry students gain the same benefit from experiential learning?

To test this out, Philip Bailey (Head of Teaching, School of Chemistry) and Deborah Fowlis (Careers Consultant, Careers Service) co-ordinated interactive workshops run by experts from the chemical industry, enabling students to experience real workplace scenarios. It would allow them to “try things out for size” (both the role and the skills necessary to succeed in the role) in a non-threatening environment.

The workshops were open to all undergraduate chemists in Years 1-5 as well as MSc chemistry students. They were mixed in groups of 6, each containing a cross section of years.

In the 2017 series, we invited 5 biotech/consumer goods organisations (3 small local and 2 large multinationals) to provide scenarios across the spectrum of “Technology Readiness Levels” 1-9. This model is used in many settings (including the MoD and NASA) but is alien to students with no experience of industry. Students gained exposure to:  proving the initial concept, R&D, production, regulation, quality, marketing, and distribution of a product. In one scenario, a contaminant had been found in the manufacturing pipeline of a drug, and groups had to work out where the problem lay. This meant that development, regulation, production and quality aspects had to be addressed and students took on one of the roles in each group.

In the 2018 series, we invited 6 organisations (3 small local companies and 3 large multinationals). Sectors covered were sustainability, precision medicine, nuclear, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. The nuclear/petrochemical workshop was also open to chemical eningeering students, offering a rare opportunity to work in cross-discipline teams.

Harry Greenwood from EDF-Energy demonstrating detrimental carbon deposition on a nuclear core
Harry Greenwood from EDF-Energy demonstrating detrimental carbon deposition on a nuclear core














After 45 mins of problem solving/discussion, each group presented their conclusions to the rest of the class and the employers. Industrial and academic staff provided encouraging and thought provoking feedback to each group.

From feedback, 100% (in 2017, n=80 attended one or more workshops) and 95% (in 2018, n=83 attended one or more workshops) of students said their expectations were met and would recommend the session to a friend.

Our objective of enabling the students to gain experience of using chemistry beyond academic research was achieved, as demonstrated by student comments:

“Interesting to learn that being a chemist does not just mean standing in a lab.”

“A great insight into what a job would entail (it is often difficult to get a proper understanding of the different possible careers with chemistry).”

“This has been a great help in helping me better consider my career options.”

Operational decision making exercise
Operational decision making exercise

Participants also had the chance to implement nascent skills such as science communication, creativity, problem solving, negotiation and business awareness. In some cases their abilites seemed to come as a revelation to them:

“I realised I am good at science communication thanks to these sessions.”

“I am capable of working in a creative way in a team.”

“Learned how to troubleshoot and communicate errors within the pharmaceutical hierarchy.”

1. Patricia R. McCarthy & Henry M. McCarthy (2006) When Case Studies Are Not Enough: Integrating Experiential Learning Into Business Curricula, Journal of Education for Business, 81:4, 201-204, DOI: 10.3200/JOEB.81.4.201-204.

Deborah Fowlis

Deborah Fowlis works part-time as a careers consultant in the University of Edinburgh Careers Service. She works mostly with Chemistry and Chemical Engineering students and graduates. Before qualifying as a careers consultant, she worked in stem cell/molecular biology post-doctoral research in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paris.

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