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Typically, mathematics is regarded as a useful tool by chemists,
and all undergraduate chemists will need to attend some sort of
mathematics course in order to access and make the most of their
science. There are various levels of mathematics used in chemistry
degrees, ranging from combinatorics and proportional reasoning to
heavy-weight differential equations and Fourier analysis.
However, study of any of the underlying mathematics out of context
tends to reduce mathematical activity to a series of clean, dry
routines and procedures. Many students then struggle with applying
the quantitative knowledge in the complicated chemical contexts
For example, we have
||Mixing solutions with certain molarities, making dilutions
||Analysis of molecular structure; moles
|Algebra and graphs
||Analysis of experimental plots of reaction rates; gas laws
||Predicting and measuring rates of reaction in measurable
|Units of measurements
||Making sense of real, complicated measurements
||Understanding crystal structure
||Drawing general conclusions from trials
Suppose that a chemist achieved a good grade in GCSE mathematics
or AS mathematics. Why would such students struggle with the
mathematical aspects of chemistry? There are several possible
- Procedural thinking
- Mathematics exams can often be passed by learning the content
procedurally. This means that students can answer certain
types of question by following a recipe. The problems in
chemistry arise because even minor deviations from the
precise recipe cause the student to fail to know what to do.
- Inability to translate mathematical meaning to
- Students who are very skilled at mathematics might have trouble
seeing how to relate the mathematical process to a real-world
context; this hampers the use of common sense, so valuable in
- Inability to make estimates or
- Mathematical contexts in chemistry are rarely
simple. In order to apply mathematics predictively, approximations
will need to be made. To make approximations requires the student
to really understand the meaning and structure of the
- Poor problem solving skills
- Mathematical issues in chemistry problems are not
usually clearly 'signposted' from a mathematical point of view. The
chemist must assess the situation, decide how to
represent it mathematically, decide what needs to be solved and
then solve the problem. Students who are not well versed in solving
'multi-step' problems in mathematics are very likely to struggle
with the application of their mathematical knowledge.
- Lack of practice
- There are two ways in which lack of practice can impact
mathematical activity in the sciences.
- First is a lack of skill at basic numerical manipulation. This
leads to errors and hold-ups regardless of whether the student
understands what they are trying to do.
- Second is a lack of practice at thinking mathematically in a
- Lack of confidence
- Lack of confidence builds with uncertainty and failure, leading
to more problems. Students who freeze at the sight of numbers or
equations will most certainly under perform.
- Lack of mathematical interest
- Students are hopefully strongly driven by their interest in
science. If mathematics is studied in an environment independent of
this then mathematics often never finds meaning and remains
abstract, dull and difficult.