Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Development of professional skills in a third year undergraduate chemistry course

Jeffrey G. Dunn, Robert I. Kagi and David N. Phillips
School of Applied Chemistry
Curtin University of Technology

Over the past two decades attention has focussed on what relevant chemistry we teach students in the classroom. However, not as much attention has been devoted to developing units that prepare chemistry students for the workplace. There is a need for a unit of their course to link the chemistry that they have already learned to the situations which they are likely to encounter upon gaining employment. Szmant (1) has described an industrial chemistry course offered at the University of Detroit aimed at bridging the academe-industry gap. Two major approaches are identified in this two-semester course, namely the way in which industry functions and the manner in which industrial chemists should act to be most effective. The former covers the areas of the chemistry of industrial processes, economic considerations, scale-up problems, marketing, sales and distribution, while the latter deals with the utilisation of chemicals, product development and environmental considerations, all aimed at preparing students for the workplace. Levy (2) has outlined a course entitled "Social and Legal Aspects of Chemistry". The course aims at developing an understanding of the societal impact of chemistry and the interplay between chemical issues and the courts. More recently Ashmore (3) and MacFarlane (4) have outlined the development of professional skills in third year university courses aimed at addressing communication skills and safety issues. Selinger (5) in his text Chemistry in the Market Place, places the emphasis on the consumer product and the chemistry needed for its understanding, rather than on the chemistry, with the product being purely illustrative.

The unit presented in the final semester of the Applied Chemistry degree course at Curtin University of Technology is named Chemistry and Technology and has been developed over a period of about 12 years. It is comprised of six modules - Professional Practice, Consumer Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Industrial Electrochemistry, Industrial Organic Chemistry and Mineral Chemistry, an outline of which is shown in Table 1. The unit operates for 14 weeks at 3 hours per week. The students are required to study all 6 modules. Ideally there would be selection of modules, but the student numbers are not sufficiently large to permit this.

Table 1: Unit Outline

Table 1: Unit outline

Professional Practice

The students are made aware that the laboratories in which they will practice upon graduation need to be certified by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA). A representative of NATA is invited as a guest lecturer to explain the laboratory certification process and the accuracy and precision of the results that are allowed to be published by laboratories.

Students are also introduced to a segment named Chemistry in Context: Finding the Best Answer. Students at universities are asked to solve problems in "closed" systems, where they are isolated from the influence of outside society. The workforce is an "open" system and their success as chemists will depend not only on their understanding of chemical processes, but also on how they can identify society variables and adapt the chemical processes to account for them. In this component the students work in small groups and compile reports that identify the role that interest groups will play in relation to the chemical process, for example traditional landowners, government, unions and the media. They soon realise that they will have to listen to other points of view, be affected by shifting parameters, and share their concerns on what will not be accepted, if their elegant chemical process is to be accepted by the general community. This exercise illustrates that in modern chemical manufacturing and technology there are many possible solutions, and rarely is there a single solution that satisfies everyone. The challenge is often to find not the right solution, but the best solution. Chalk (6) has also reasoned that no matter how clever or novel the process, nowadays the science cannot be separated from the social context in which it is developed.

Shreeve and Renfrew (7) have described the greatest hazard in an industrial chemical laboratory as a fresh chemistry graduate. We include a segment Chemistry and Occupational Hygiene and invite a representative of Worksafe Western Australia to address the students on the most recent legislations that affect the control of hazardous chemicals in the laboratory. We present the students with the full implications of Material Safety Data Sheets, together with a consolidation of chemicals handling already met in the course. The students begin to realise that when they will advance in their employment to become the supervisors in the laboratory, then the responsibilities associated with Duty of Care will be reversed from what they experience as undergraduate students. This segment is also very important for students progressing to postgraduate studies, where assisting in the supervision of first year undergraduate laboratories will form part of their responsibilities.

Four hours are devoted to report writing where correct structuring and referencing of reports is discussed using excellent, acceptable and unacceptable reports as illustrations. This segment is particularly timely as the students are expected to submit a major report on a project they have researched in the laboratory during the final semester of the course.

Consultancy practice is included in this module, where the expertise of current staff is utilised to explain professional indemnity and the professional hazards of litigation, and points students in the correct direction in the setting up and the associated ethics of such a practice.

Consumer Chemistry

In our approach to Consumer Chemistry, the students are allocated a consumer topic in the first week of semester and given a period of 5 weeks in which to research relevant information. A list of typical topics given to students is shown in Table 2. This segment is designed to achieve two major aims, the first of which is to examine the way in which chemical principles are used in the development of consumer goods and services. The types of questions posed to the students in their approach include
Table 2: Typical Consumer Chemistry Topics

Alkyd resin paintsMargarine and fat rancidity
Beer including proof ratingMarketed fresh fruit juices
Car radiator corrosion inhibitorsPetrol and its additives
Contact lens materialsSuperphosphate fertilisers
Domestic soaps and detergentsSwimming pool chemicals
Fly spraysWhite ant treatment
Lead acid batteriesWeed killers

The students are expected to approach local and interstate industrial companies to obtain up-to-date information on the topic. The second aim is to provide practice in communicating technical information via written and verbal methods and is achieved in three ways. Every student is expected to produce a well-presented two-page abstract at the completion of the 5 week period. This is a summary of the essential information of the topic and must be correctly referenced with about 4 or 5 pertinent references. Each student is expected to present a professional 20 minute talk which is followed by a 5-10 minute question period. Participation in the question time is strongly encouraged since it stimulates the future scene when working with colleagues in industry.

Environmental Chemistry

This module concentrates on water quality, in particular the contamination of rivers and aquifers by metals and organics. Attention is focussed on correct methods of obtaining representative samples, target analytes set by the USEPA, the standard reference materials available from NIST and the clean room techniques necessary for conducting acceptable analytical procedures. In metal contamination, emphasis is placed on speciation into inorganic and organic components, for example simple tin and butyltin species. Ion selective electrodes are discussed as appropriate methods for the analysis of a wide range of pollutants. In the environmental organic chemistry, heavy emphasis is placed on the instrumental techniques available for the determination of pollutants such as organic sulfides and pesticide residues i.e. GC, GC-MS, GC-MS-MS, GC-FTIR and HPLC. The School has considerable staff expertise and state-of-the-art equipment on which to base this module.

Industrial Electrochemistry

Corrosion, especially that caused by carbon dioxide, is a major concern to the petroleum industry. In this segment, students are shown how to translate their electrochemistry knowledge to various types and mechanisms of corrosion in wells and pipelines. The upgrading of ilmenite FeTiO3 to approximately 92% TiO2 is used as a case study. The formation of the magnetite in preference to haematite alpha-Fe2O3 or goethite alpha-FeOOH depends on the attainment of the correct conditions on the Pourbaix diagram, which is an excellent example to students on relating theoretical electrochemistry to an industrial application.

Mineral Chemistry

The mineral chemistry component of the unit is an opportunity to prepare students for the industrial workplace by Recovery of gold and nickel from their respective ores is given special attention. Using the gold industry as an example, the basic chemical reactions of gold extraction are related to unit operations of typical plant processes using plant flow diagrams. The reasons for the different routes are discussed, and then some research findings presented including an outline of the research plan and the techniques used. The relevance of laboratory scale experiments and their relationship to pilot plant and industrial scale operations can be discussed. Much of the gold is contained in refractory sulfide minerals, which usually need to be oxidised by bioleaching or roasting before being leached for gold recovery. This provides an opportunity to discuss the various ways in which roasting can be achieved using rotary kilns, fluidised beds (recirulating or conventional), and to indicate which of the local industries use a specific technology.

Industrial Organic Chemistry

Students entering the unit are steeped in textbook organic chemistry. Some might even believe that ethanol is made commercially by a Grignard reaction between methylmagnesium bromide and formaldehyde! The approach taken in this module follows that set out by Wittcoff (8) in his early papers. Using such information as a framework, more detail can be worked in using sources such as the lists of economically important industrial organic chemicals described by Chenier and Artibee (9). This segment of the unit is also used as a vehicle to introduce the notion of chemicals as commodities where economies of scale allow many intermediates to be manufactured for $1 per kilogram or less. Also discussed is the trend to use natural gas liquids as petrochemical feedstocks and the drive to develop processes which use methane as a feedstock.


In the Consumer Chemistry section the oral presentation is peer assessed, which is given equal weighting with the degree of participation and the quality of the abstract. The Professional Practice and Environmental Chemistry are assessed by a series of assignments, while the Industrial Electrochemistry, Industrial Organic Chemistry and Mineral Chemistry are assessed by written examination.


The unit Chemistry and Technology is most appropriate for the final semester of a 3-year undergraduate chemistry course. It prepares students for the "real world" when they enter the workforce, and is highly commended by the School of Applied Chemistry's Advisory Board, which is primarily comprised of industrial chemists.


The authors wish to acknowledge the contributions of Stuart Bailey, Alan Jefferson, Brian Kinsella, Roland De Marco, Lindsay Mullings, Dierdre Pearce and the many other guest speakers who have helped make this a very rewarding unit.


H. Szmant, J. Chem. Educ. 1985, 62, 736-741.

C. Levy, J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 289-294.

Ashmore, 14th International Conference on Chemical Education, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, July 1996.

R. MacFarlane, 14th International Conference on Chemical Education, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, July 1996.

Selinger, Chemistry in the Market Place, 1989, 4th ed., Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Group.

Chalk, ChemTech, May 1986, 294-297.

M. Shreeve and M. M. Renfrew, J. Chem. Educ. 1980, 57, 435-436.

Wittcoff, ChemTech. December 1977, 754-759, April 1978, 238-245.

J. Chenier and D. S. Artibee, J. Chem. Educ. 1988, 65, 244-250, 433-436.

Please cite as: Dunn, J. G., Kagi, R. I. and Phillips, D. N. (1997). Development of professional skills in a third year undergraduate chemistry course. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p261-266. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/dunn1.html

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