It was an eye opening experience visiting lecture,
laboratory and seminar sessions at a community
college recently. Chemistry professionals from
many backgrounds play important roles in this less
heralded segment of an academic career path.
Recent advanced degree graduates, mid-career people
who have transitioned from industry, scientists with
interdisciplinary backgrounds in marketing, product
development and analysis, and experienced community
college professors with a passion for instilling a strong
desire for the chemical field to curious minds are all
dedicated to this sub-field.
The excellent Preparation for Life After Graduate
school program offers Community College teaching as
one of “four” academic directions with a eye-popping
1811 institutions (~60% of the total number) enrolling
44% of all chemistry undergraduates. The roles that
this major subset of our community needs to provide
is met by incredibly dedicated staffs of professionals.
They not only teach general chemistry and organic
chemistry lectures, seminars and laboratories, but also
have important roles in preparing undergraduates in a
dozen other technical fields with interdisciplinary
foundations in chemistry. A major component of their
professional roles involves mentoring, coaching and
teaching the accountability and determination skills (grit)
that we all recognize as important.
THE STUDENTS WHO ENROLL
The “average age” of community college students is
nearer typical graduate school population of 24-26
with many more adult responsibilities that typical
undergraduates and graduates may not– families,
full time jobs, military commitments, travel and
home considerations, and more.
They often do not know where jobs are or what graduates
can do or where they can progress to the next academic
HOURS, INCIDENTS AND STYLE
A recent AHA (History) description of some differences
in teaching intensity of more sessions in survey courses
can be translated to general chemistry and organic
Community colleges manage student traffic and hours
of classes in a way that allows student to attend classes.
So often that means late afternoon through evening classes
and mid-day classes.
Classes can be longer (1.5-2 hours) and focus more on
repetition of core concepts and ideas in interactive
problem solving styles either with individuals or
Classes begin on time, yet students arrive at various times
due to conflicts with traffic and work. The teacher has
to be creative and resilient to bring late arrivers up to
speed in considered ways to be effective teachers and
LABORATORY- MAJOR DIFFERENCE BOUGHT OUT
IN COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Nothing replaces the need for good laboratory instruction
in chemistry. It is hard to simulate labs without at least a
performance type of run through. I observed wonderful
listening, organization and problem solving of a half
dozen cases as students encountered set-up, execution and
laboratory report writing (incidentally, handed in on the
same day of the experiment.). A dedicated full time staff
member needs to be involved and committed to student
In addition, critical habits involving preparation, cleanliness,
safety, hazardous materials and operations need to be developed
and repeated. A one time through a process is not enough.
This is just one of several ways chemistry curricula is different
than the history community college description by John Ball.
Another way is the logical and mathematical content and
formalism of homework and examination responses. So while
there can be essays or multiple choice responses chemistry
requires critical thinking problem solving. Often times, one
can understand the descriptions, but chemistry requires sticking
to things till the end without taking shortcuts. While many
students “live on” partial credit, it is not a desired approach.