The pandemic and associated lockdowns have had a huge effect on students in a myriad of ways. Within university chemistry departments, one of the main issues has been maintaining the teaching of practical skills. The lockdowns and social distancing regulations made the running of those all-important experimental sessions almost impossible, forcing the majority of departments to adapt their teaching by moving them temporarily online. These virtual practical sessions, whilst ensuring students still managed to engage with the experimental side of the subject, meant that a large number of students missed out on the "hands-on" experience of working in a lab. A recent RSC report concluded: "High-level practical laboratory skills cannot be effectively taught or learned online, and yet they underpin industries key to the UK’s economic recovery and global competitiveness." It went on to suggest 73% of undergraduates identified practical skills as essential for their future employment.
Practical teaching is a crucial component of a chemistry degree. We hear from our stakeholders – universities, students and employers – that laboratory experience remains essential for the future chemistry workforce. This is reflected in our worldwide accreditation programme where practical skills – training future chemists to become adept at finding their way round a chemistry laboratory and carrying out essential practical work in a safe and efficient manner – form one of the key requirements. Imposed lockdowns caused concerns that students would possibly not get exposure to practical skills the profession required. One academic said: "If (undergraduate) students cannot access labs to be trained we risk raising a generation of (lab-)inexperienced chemists that may not be competitive on an international level if other countries manage the pandemic better than the UK."
In response to these concerns, the Royal Society of Chemistry has committed approximately £900,000 of funding to help chemistry departments run extra practical sessions. The aim is to give students the opportunity to acquire or advance any skills they may have missed during the pandemic. In addition, students that take part in these extra practical sessions can apply for personal financial support from the Royal Society of Chemistry Chemists’ Community Fund (CCF). The CCF grants available are for financial hardship encountered as a result of attending these extra practical sessions, in particular, loss of earnings from secured part time work, or quarantine costs incurred by international students returning to the UK.
To date, we have awarded over £160,000 to help students reconnect with hands-on practicals during their accredited chemistry degree courses. These grants have funded several different solutions to providing essential laboratory skills, such as out of term sessions, and creative take home experiment kits.
These grants are having a positive impact on the teaching of chemistry. One department that benefitted from a grant is at Queen’s University Belfast.
Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis told us:
"We are grateful to the RSC for financial support to run this activity. We were the only school within the Faculty of EPS at Queen’s to receive financial support from their professional accrediting body and this has attracted interest by colleagues from other disciplines and highlighted as exemplary practice. Given the success of this activity and the extremely positive feedback received, we will now introduce catch-up skills sessions at the start of each academic year for returning students."
Students have commented that they welcomed the extra sessions as they gave them the opportunity to refresh their memory of lab working, prepare for the practical sessions in the coming academic year and actually get to meet and work with their classmates.
The RSC is proud to be able to help the future chemical sciences workforce in this manner.
We are accepting applications for both the practical skills grants and the CCF grants until October 2022. If you would be interested in applying for help with the funding of extra practical teaching sessions, please contact us.