Some thoughts on chemistry and maths


There is a crisis with chemistry. Too few students study chemistry at Leaving Cert (higher) level (6,756 in 2013) and they never seem to catch up at third level. The numbers of young people studying biology is much larger (23,436 in 2013) and many are attracted to biological subjects at third level but there seems to be insufficient recognition that biology is ultimately just chemistry. As well as having an insufficient grasp of basic organic chemistry, students seem to be unprepared to cope with many fundamental concepts like acids and bases, reaction rate and, crucially, chemical equilibrium. For me, the chemistry problem is even bigger than the maths problem. It needs some form of State response. There is a real argument to be made that chemistry should be a compulsory subject for entry to certain degree programs.


Over the years I have repeatedly made the point that students need to acquire basic mathematical technique before they can become ‘problem solvers’. I still hold to that view but when technology comes along that is ‘disruptive’, we need to take notice of it and use it to our advantage. Calculators were a disruptive technology and there is no doubt that all of us now rely on calculators when in the past we might have relied on our ability to do mental arithmetic. But no one would suggest that we should reduce our use of calculators to satisfy some fixation about mental arithmetic being ‘better for you’.

Symbolic computation, or computer algebra, is a similarly disruptive technology. While I still do most of my mathematical work by hand, I find that I have actually learned quite a bit of mathematics by using symbolic computation, especially the tools available on In particular, I have learned a lot about certain ‘special functions’ that I had never previously heard of. In many cases, the experience has radically changed the way I do certain calculations and I have published a few papers based on this new knowledge. Technology can be good!


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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6 Responses to Some thoughts on chemistry and maths

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Some thoughts on chemistry and maths

  2. Rob Jackson says:

    I don’t think there is the same problem with Chemistry in the UK. Most departments now have more students than they can cope with, and several universities have reopened their Chemistry departments!

    • foleyg says:


      It’s not so much that people aren’t studying chemistry at third level but it’s that those who don’t do chemistry as a major but do things like molecular biology seem to have almost zero knowledge of really basic chemistry.

  3. trionaoc says:

    Not only do they fail to catch up, they fail to hang on to any knowledge they acquire during the compulsory first year module. I am baffled as to why 4th year project students don’t know how to make up a buffer or do basic molarity calculations. I’d like to devise a lock for the lab door that would only allow in the students with a basic grasp of arithmetic (and the lab key as well).

    • foleyg says:

      That could be the spoon feeding culture. In our labs, the technicians do all the prep work so the students never really get any practice at doing the basics. Don’t get me going on basic maths. I am completely baffled by the maths thing.

  4. Rob Jackson says:

    OK, fair enough, although even our finalists sometime have to be reminded about molarity. It seems a topic which almost all students, whether chemistry majors or not, struggle with. I used to teach a health foundation year course where aspiring medics and pharmacists learned some basic chemistry. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be comfortable with prescriptions made up by some of them!

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