Undergraduate Projects (again!) This Time: MChem

I wrote back in May about final year projects, meaning BSc final year. http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/2016/05/one-year-out-another-year-in/ It’s a nice aggregation of previous musings on the subject and therefor relevant to the brainfull of thoughts leaping from my fingers. For 2016/17 we have a new type of project: final year MChem projects. I’m yet to see assessment criteria for these projects but one thing I must do is consider my expectations as a supervisor of MChem projects and grapple with the difference between a BSc and an MChem project.

The first thing that is clear to me is that if you do a 15-credit 3rd year project (as our MChems do) and carry on in that vein you’ll probably get a lower mark. We often talk of ‘step-up’ between levels and FHEQ level 6 to 7 is a decent one. Is it possible however to quantify what that step-up is in terms of expectations?

I have experienced an MChem project from the point of view of a student, but never as a supervisor. I have experienced MPhil projects as a supervisor, done deliberately as MPhils and less deliberately. And most recently MA dissertation work as a student. I haven’t been involved with many discussions with my colleagues about this matter so these are largely personal thoughts.

I started out thinking that the difference between a BSc and an MChem project was comparatively indefinable. If I had a BSc project student who did exactly as asked, was prompted to interpret their data in a timely manner and did it, and who was a reasonably steady pair of hands in the lab, I’d be pretty satisfied. With a decent write-up I’d expect a mark in the 60s. I’d need to see a bit of independent thinking and initiative within fairly tight boundaries to break 70. Below 60, I’m probably putting in a bit more effort steering the student than I would like or we are going over things multiple times.

For an MChem, someone doing exactly as asked with prompts and a decent write-up would be in the 50s. As the pass mark at FHEQ7 is 50%, you can extrapolate that as sufficient to pass but not a great deal more than that. Similarly, a bit of independent thinking and initiative within reasonable boundaries would break in to the 60s. To get into the 70s I’d be looking for a decent intellectual contribution to the project – evidence of identifying a problem, diving into literature to come up with some solutions, and suggesting a couple as possibilities. With a sound pair of hands in the lab, I’d probably agree to try the possibilities provided they were reasonable, not too time consuming and not too demanding of expensive kit, techniques or consumables.

There is one thing, however, that constantly strikes me about projects. We start talking about making something that no one has made before, try the most likely lab procedure to make it, and do a bit of characterisation. Now, obviously we’re stepping into uncharted territory here – something new, no literature prep to follow, no characterisation data to use. We must then be very critical of our results and ask: how do we know we have made it? I blame undergrad teaching labs which tend to run to the ‘I’ve done what the lab manual has said so of course I’ve made the stuff’ thinking, often with interpretation of data sets provided rather than generated. And they tend to be reliable experiments. What I really want to see in MChem projects is due dilligence in interpreting data after each step, carefully verifying that molecules are what we hope they are, and not moving on until certain each and every time. My projects usually require making a good number of batches of the same stuff and I do get worried when students think that it worked the first time so why not the 2nd, 3rd, 4th… and then we waste a lot of time tracking back through to find the error when it hasn’t!

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