No More Titrations

Written by  //  April 26, 2011  //  Science & Technology  //  8 Comments

[A guest post by Bhaskar Bhushan, pursuing his D.Phil. in Chemistry at the University of Oxford.]

Dr. S.V. Eswaran, the head of the chemistry department at St. Stephen’s College would spend 40 minutes out of the 55 minutes of each lecture pontificating about how Indians are “…good at theory but terrible at practicals.” Having been fortunate enough to have done my B.Sc. at that college, followed by a master’s at IIT Kanpur, supposedly the two best Indian colleges in the areas of Science and Engineering (if the India Today surveys are to be believed), it wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to suggest that I have had access to the best education that India has to offer in Chemistry. And while I share several ideological differences with Dr. Eswaran, and determined as I was to disprove his notion, I have had to since admit that it’s a bit of an uphill struggle to do so.

The problem, I believe, lies in the chemistry practicals course structures. Now that I’ve begun my Ph.D in Oxford, I’ve found that while everything I’ve learned during classroom lectures in DU and IITK has been of great use to me, almost none of the practicals have. The syllabi are mostly outdated, and a radical reform is needed to keep Indian students and Indian science competitive. To illustrate this, I’ll go through the three main sub-divisions of Organic, Inorganic and Physical chemistry in turn.

In the organic chemistry practicals, students learn to perform chemical syntheses, a necessary skill to learn for a career in experimental chemistry. However, from one’s B.Sc. straight through to the end of M.Sc., this learning is imparted through one-page laboratory protocols, telling the student how much of each reagent they must add to this much starting material, stir for that long at so many degrees Celsius, then recover the product. However, actual science never works this way. Following published procedures and protocols to the letter isn’t enough; one has to constantly monitor and analyse the reaction in real-time using chromatography, mass spectrometry and NMR. So much of synthetic chemistry involves improvisation, tweaking and troubleshooting the parameters of the reaction. Of course, there is a systematic way of going about it, which should be taught before we’re let loose in a real lab. The practicals syllabus in DU and IITK prescribes performing different kinds of reactions (oxidations, acetylations etc.), but with essentially the same techniques rather than aiming to make the student conversant with the variety of methods used in labs today. Honestly, how many different ways are there to mix chemicals in a beaker, set it on a bunsen, and sit around for 3 hours? Teach us how to fill out a risk-assessment, how to run a column, how to perform thin-layer chromatography instead.

Also, the current marking system for synthesis reactions incentivises high yields of product from the reaction. More yield means more marks, so students often cheat the system by mixing in tartaric acid from the shelf into their white product, artificially boosting it’s weight. In the IIT’s now, professors have now begun to analyse the purity of final compounds spectroscopically before giving the marks out, but this emphasis on product purity has yet to make its way into the official marking scheme.

Most experiments in the inorganic chemistry lab, particularly at the undergraduate level, involve titrations. Acid-base titrations, redox titrations, complexometric titrations, iodometric titrations and variations thereof, involving sucking hazardous chemicals into a pipette using one’s mouth. What you may be surprised to know, is that nobody does these titrations anymore in current research. These are mostly done in industry, and even then, are carried out by automated machines, accurate to far more decimal points than undergrad students. Though the reagents required for these reactions are relatively cheap and widely accessible, these experiments are little more than outdated relics, and accidents waiting to happen. I once spent 2 days at home after sucking acetone into my lungs through a pipette.

These experiments teach no relevant skills to the student, and in fact turns many students off of chemistry, fearing that they would be forever swirling burette runoff into a conical flask, and burning their mouths with ammonia or hydrochloric acid. In order to move with the times, emphasis must be placed on the challenges faced by inorganic chemists today, like Organometallic chemistry, photovoltaics, superconductivity and catalysis. Not only is this more relevant to chemists today, it’s incredibly cool as well. It would certainly be a challenge to formulate new illustrative experiments relevant to cutting-edge science, but just learning about these areas outside the classroom is what got me hooked on chemistry in the first place! Learning in the lab, even without doing lab work is preferable to performing unnecessary, old and irrelevant science.

However, the most glaring example of refusing to move with the times is the physical chemistry syllabus in DU. Months are spent on measuring the surface tension and viscosity of liquids, which is orders of magnitude less relevant to¬† modern chemistry than spectroscopy is. On the other hand, Infra-red, UV, fluorescence, mass spectrometry and NMR are our bread-and-butter techniques, relevant in all disciplines of chemistry and biology. Rather than just teaching them in one theory course at the end of the 3rd year as they currently are, more emphasis must be placed on familiarising the student with these methods. This could include analysing compounds already prepared in the organic synthesis lab. However, the spectrometers are very expensive, each being no less than $10,000. I would still recommend investment into the purchase of these machines and setting up of a central open-access facility in the university, where students can be trained to use the machines, submit their samples and analyse their data instead of measuring the surface tension of a liquid by counting the number of drops running out of a glass tube. I won’t even go into ‘Computers and applications to chemistry’ practicals course in DU. All I’ll say is that we’ve already learned QBASIC as a programming language in class VI, so let’s please move on.

It’s clear that a rethink of the chemistry syllabus is needed, and perhaps will continue to be needed every 15 years or so. This is going to have to be a delicate balancing act, particularly in DU. With over 100 colleges catering to a huge spectrum of students, this reformed syllabus cannot afford to leave anyone behind. But let’s get rid of the tirations. No more titrations. For the love of god.

8 Comments on "No More Titrations"

  1. Soham April 26, 2011 at 7:51 pm ·

    Hey Bhaskar,

    Kudos for putting it out there so that it catches on to the kids comin’ up through this system.
    But one thing I would like to point out is that we can’t do away with all these assorted mix of techniques…….coz in the end…….it really comes down to this-surely you need to have some experience of taking in those wonderful things called chemicals…and isn’t it the reason that we are all here for after all… get dirty and get some value out of the experience.
    The system needs major upheavals ……..that is plain to see and you have put it across wonderfully.
    Stay safe.


  2. Akshat April 27, 2011 at 12:00 am ·

    Agree with you on the need for redoing the syllabus. I don’t think I could have started a DPhil had I not visited a foreign lab beforehand.

    One problem with the syllabus is that it hardly changes. Instead of changing it every 15 years, there should be continuous tinkering done every year andthena major review every five years.

    You gotta do what you gotta do to give train our students well enough to be able to compete in the market.

  3. Bhaskar Bhushan April 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm ·

    A clarification to all: The piece wasn’t written in the spirit of being simply critical of the Indian educational system. I want to be a part of this system eventually, and wanted to suggest some policy changes to make Indian students better equipped for a research career ‘out-of-the-box’. It shouldn’t be necessary for a student to learn their practical skills like packing a column and running a TLC from summer projects instead of the regular labs.

    This in no way reflects the job that the teachers from whom I have learned for the past 5 years are doing. No matter how good the teacher (and some are VERY good indeed), they’d still have to teach in the unpalatable realm of ‘outside the syllabus’ in order to get into current research. That’s not something I like, and I think that’s an opinion I’m allowed to have.

  4. Subha Mukherjee April 28, 2011 at 2:15 am ·

    Very true Bhaskar… the most concerning thing which you touched at one place is the reliance on fraudulent means by students to meet the expected result or else one would be greeted with poor grades. That has to stop! When I TA ed in a lab course, I found these students so honest here.. They just report anything (457% yield, reason: failure to evaporate solvent due to lack of time, being one example) that they observe and try to EXPLAIN the anomaly in contrary to system back at home where you would get an ‘A’ with only good yield and ideal plots! If one would start awarding students based on reasoning and stop penalizing them for obtained experimental results, I guess the tendency to resort to cooked data would stop…..

  5. Bhisma Chakrabarti April 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm ·

    hi bhaskar,
    good post – and i agree for the most part. the big question about practicals is always about resources and the number of students. e.g. if there are ~71 colleges in DU, and say 50 of them have a Chemistry programme, each with at least 30 students, then a central facility will need to accommodate 1500 students on a weekly basis. This is a tall order, and hence the collegiate system. A university like Cambridge or Oxford will have at most 200-300 undergrads using their Chemistry lab facilities per week, if not less. In view of the fees charged (and I am not even going to discuss the fees that will be charged from next year), it is difficult to expect comparable techniques being available at DU. however, i do think there is a lot of improvement to be had easily in particularly the course you highlight, i.e. the computers in chemistry course. More uptodate object oriented languages such as Python can be taught, with a project component involving the analysis of publicly available databases. This will not only teach the extremely important scripting skills to the students, but also give a preliminary research experience in chemical/bioinformatics to the students.

    just my two cents,

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