Welcome to the new academic year. New cohorts of students are experiencing their first science at school, introduction to chemistry, or exposure to the lab. What an honour to be able to introduce someone to the world at its molecular scale.

Teaching chemistry is not without challenges, and this year the stakes are high: while the number of places to study chemistry after secondary school is increasing – it really is a new beginning for Swansea University who have their first intake of chemistry undergraduates – enthusiasm for studying undergraduate chemistry seems to have dropped. This might be a blip rather than a general trend, and we can’t do anything about the fluctuating numbers of 18-year-olds each year, but inspiring the next generation of chemists seems a more important task than ever.

The reasons students choose other subjects over chemistry are multifaceted and complex to tease apart. But the perceived lack of a clear career pathway beyond a chemistry degree could be a major reason. The Royal Society of Chemistry recently asked 78 teachers why they think their students aren’t choosing chemistry at university: this was one factor many agreed on.

Girl looking into the sky with binoculars

Source: Khakimullin Aleksandr / Shutterstock.com

University is expensive and if I were an applicant now, I would be making very pragmatic choices about my future. In contrast to chemistry, medicine might seem a better choice to some because it leads to a well-defined and well-respected career. Similarly, biochemistry might win students over because of its interdisciplinary nature, which, in turn, could be seen to have more career opportunities than a chemistry degree would.

Engaging more students from wider backgrounds and from an earlier age with science could help. Using the concept of ‘science capital’ in the classroom is an interesting and developing approach to this. Among other things, it suggests teachers take and value the experiences and interests students bring to the classroom, and link them to knowledge to help students see themselves as ‘science people’. But how can we also enable students to see themselves as ‘chemistry people’?

Engaging more students from wider backgrounds and from an earlier age with science could help. Using the concept of ‘science capital’ in the classroom is an interesting and developing approach to this (eic.rsc.org/3007626). Among other things, it suggests teachers take and value the experiences and interests students bring to the classroom, and link them to knowledge to help students see themselves as ‘science people’. But how can we also enable students to see themselves as ‘chemistry people’?

We may need to make the possibilities a chemistry degree provides clearer to young people.

For example, in this issue of Education in Chemistry you can find chemists making the stuff of our everyday lives – from beer to medicines – and making them faster and in more environmentally friendly ways (p26). And not without help from other disciplines like biology.

For example, in the September issue of Education in Chemistry, you can find chemists making the stuff of our everyday lives – from beer to medicines – and making them faster and in more environmentally friendly ways. And not without help from other disciplines like biology.

You can find them at music festivals, helping revellers stay safe, even saving lives, with their analytical wizardry (p16). This article takes you into the world of the volunteer chemists who turn up at festivals with their infrared spectrometers. With it, you’ll also find a set of related teaching resources to download from our website.

You can find them at music festivals, helping revellers stay safe, even saving lives, with their analytical wizardry. This article takes you into the world of the volunteer chemists who turn up at festivals with their infrared spectrometers. With it, you’ll also find a set of related teaching resources.

Chemists don’t have to stay chemists, even those remaining in research. They have freedom to pick up their chemical toolbox and cross the boundaries of disciplines from physics to engineering, nanotechnology to synthetic biology, to solve today’s complex problems needing a multidisciplinary approach. But it’s sometimes difficult to convey this message.

Chemistry isn’t the easiest subject, but it does give interesting options. You can even switch pipettes for pens and become a magazine editor, like I recently did.