AUC’s Chemistry Track: An Empty Promise

By Veerle Fanoy

— “A full-time, selective three-year honours programme in liberal arts and sciences at the Bachelor level, taught in English, with a strong offering in the sciences and enrolling up to 50% science majors.” With this description Amsterdam University College (AUC) presents itself to prospective students on its website. Yet with four chemistry courses cancelled during the 2017-2018 academic year, in an already lackluster 300-level selection, AUC’s chemistry students are sceptical about the institution’s strong offering in the sciences.

The track is struggling to attract enough students to run the courses, resulting in course cancellations after course enrolment and courses not even being offered at all. One of the consequences which students experience is limited offering of specific chemistry courses, especially in the higher levels. Milo Cornelissen, second-year Science major, finds this problematic. “There are no 300-level courses left,” he says. “Only Atmospheric Sciences, but that is not really a chemistry course.”

Chemistry students encounter a similar issue when taking 300-level theme courses. Imme Schuringa, AUC alumnus who graduated in 2017 and is now pursuing a master’s in chemistry at UvA, experienced this. “Theme courses [were] either super specific, as in the physics track, or they [covered] a too broad range of tracks, which was the case for chemistry theme courses,” she says.

Noortje ten Wolde, first-year Science major, is also not satisfied with the chemistry track. “The fact that AUC [no longer offers] Inorganic Chemistry, is not really suitable for a university with an ’emphasis on science’,” she says. The absence of Inorganic Chemistry in the chemistry curriculum illustrates another problem: these course cancellations lead students to experience a lack of knowledge they perceive as essential when pursuing a career in the field of chemistry. This issue is being intensified by the lack of lab courses offered by AUC. “If I would not have actively gone after lab courses outside AUC I would not have been accepted [in my masters],” Schuringa says.

The variety of issues that chemistry students experience in their track leads them to feel unprepared for any future studies in the field. “It will be difficult for me to get into a chemistry masters, because Inorganic Chemistry has been cancelled at AUC, but that course is essential to a chemistry bachelor,” Cornelissen says. Jaspar Burg, third-year Science major, also feels as if he is missing some essential expertise. “I am lacking practical skills as well as analytical skills which arguably are more important [than theory] when working in a chemistry related field later on,” he says.

Multiple chemistry courses have been cancelled for the coming academic year, thinning the track even more. These changes proposed by the science faculty were approved by the Board of Studies (BoS), though with concern. Thijs Etty, chair of the BoS, explains the approval as being realistic given the very minimal student interest in these courses. “Rather than letting students sign up for courses and then having to cancel them due to the low number of sign-ups, they won’t be offered in the first place,” he says. According to Etty, the decision for approval was motivated by acknowledging the current situation. “There’s just not enough demand to run these courses,” Etty says. “We have to take into consideration that we don’t have the facilities to run lab courses, and renting them costs money.” The BoS did request the Head of Studies Sciences to determine a clear direction for the track. “Either invest, or possibly adjust or discontinue the chemistry track,” Etty says. Additionally, the BoS proposed to rename the chemistry track to “bio-chemistry”. The BoS letter of March 20, 2018, stated that the motivation behind this suggestion was that “the AUC chemistry track has always been focused on “bio-chemistry”, and this focus is even stronger with the discontinuation of the above.”

The new Head of Studies for the sciences is Maarten Boerlijst, who has been in office since February this year. Boerlijst is very much aware of the problems within the chemistry track and acknowledges that AUC currently doesn’t have the means to build a strong chemistry track. “The short-term solution is to guide students [in taking] chemistry courses at the UvA and VU,” Boerlijst says. In Boerlijst’s opinion, these collaborations will also be part of the long-term solution, while simultaneously enhancing AUC’s own chemistry offerings. “I want to sit with UvA and VU faculty members, with AUC faculty, and with AUC students to see what opportunities we have.” This would give students agency in shaping the theme courses, for example. “And, I want one or two extra 300-level courses,” Boerlijst adds. However, Boerlijst does emphasise that AUC is a Liberal Arts and Sciences bachelor with a strong focus on interdisciplinarity. “Within a Liberal Arts and Sciences bachelor, it’s very difficult to shape a track which is very specific and disciplinary, such as the chemistry track,” Boerlijst says. “You should only come to AUC if you want to employ interdisciplinarity,” he says.

While chemistry students acknowledge that collaborations with UvA and VU are necessary short-term solutions, they remain reserved about its success as a long-term policy. According to both Cornelissen and Schuringa, schedule clashes between the different universities is a regular occurrence. “It is almost impossible to combine certain chemistry courses at the UvA with AUC,” Schuringa says. “It is essential to have new chemistry courses at AUC,” Cornelissen says. “Because courses at the UvA overlap, and [because] the schedules of UvA’s lab courses are irregular it’s very hard to follow multiple courses there.”

All parties are aware that AUC might not be the place to study chemistry. While Boerlijst is determined to improve the track as much as possible, several students are sceptical. “I think it would be more sensible to be more transparent about this and simply tell everyone in advance that chemistry can’t be properly studied at AUC,” Burg says. It seems that the website description is in need of an update.

Editor’s note: This news story is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was entirely reported, written, edited, and fact checked by members of the journalism course. Some material may have been altered by The Herring’s editors to fit its style guidelines.

 

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