Physical chemistry is widely considered by both instructors, and certainly the instructed, to be the most daunting, demanding and difficult course in the chemistry curriculum. Between ten and fifteen thousand students a year take physical chemistry in the US and about ten thousand will graduate with a degree in chemistry. Both the number of enrolled chemistry graduate students and the number of chemistry doctorates awarded have declined in the last decade. In the same period, the number of doctorates awarded in physical chemistry has dropped more than twice as much as the overall chemistry Ph.D.s granted. This shrinking of the pool of physical chemists is troubling, given the ways in which applications of modern physical chemistry permeate many areas of chemistry, as well as other fields, such as medicine and biology - as the awarding of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine not to a physician, but to a physical chemist, attests!
There remains a paucity of references to the modern literature in many current textbooks. For example, a comparison of the chapters dealing with chemical kinetics in my father's 1951 physical chemistry text to those in the text I used some 25 years later, to a recent (2002) edition of that text, reveals very little change over a half-century. A few additional topics are included, most notably the use of computers to solve complex rate equations and techniques to follow fast reactions. Connections to the current primary literature are few and far between. For example, in the section on fast kinetics in a 2002 text, the most recent reference dates to 1969, despite the major advances in that field in the last thirty years. Much of the example data in current physical chemistry texts is many years out of date, and while it certainly adequately illustrates the principles, students cannot help but find irrelevant and uninteresting a field in which a large number of the examples presented to them were done before their parents were born.
Vital, engaging and relevant courses in physical chemistry should play a strong role in encouraging students to remain in the chemistry pipeline, especially in the pipeline leading to advanced work in physical chemistry. What type of courses will be most effective in bringing students into chemistry and retaining their interest in the field? There is good evidence from other courses and curricula that suggests introducing context-rich materials into a course engages a broader pool of students than might otherwise be reached, leads to improved student performance, and increases retention of students.
Context-rich materials embed specific principles drawn from a curriculum into a web of related information. These materials open up for students the "who, what, when, where, and why?" of a concept. There is good evidence that context-rich curricula can attract and retain a diverse group of students, engage students with a wide variety of learning styles, as well as improve student performance. The best context-rich materials will offer concrete examples, feature connectivity between disciplines, introduce methodology, and acknowledge the impact solving a problem can have in the broader world. Case studies are one example of context-rich materials that have been successfully used in the teaching of science, but context-rich materials need not be so broad in scope. The Physical Chemistry Online project (PCOL) has used context-rich modules to build student interest in the physical chemistry laboratory.