I came across this question: Designing a mathematics course for 1st year chemistry students . The question is not directly about teaching chemistry, but it's about teaching mathematics to undergraduate students of chemistry. (which is why I used the word "related to teaching chemistry" in the title).

My argument in favour would be that chemists are the best people to answer what mathematics are necessary for chemistry. On the other hand, the question is not about teaching chemistry itself, but rather about associated topics required to learn chemistry.

Should questions like these be on-topic for this site?

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for posting, sorry I couldn't myself - I'm a bit busy. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Mod May 28 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @orthocresol Should I make two answers with the choice to vote yes or no, and allow people to add their thoughts to them? $\endgroup$ – S R Maiti May 28 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, I don't think so. Let me try to write up an answer, and then let's see how the votes fall. I must admit, though, that one problem about meta is that its population is really not representative of the main site userbase. At least judging by the votes on the comments of that question, it seems that more people agree with you—although it was a HNQ for 1 hour, so some of those votes might just be noise too. Still, let's see how things go. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Mod May 29 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ To all readers: It's perfectly fine if you disagree with my opinion - but please consider writing an answer, so that people can vote on it and discuss points, etc. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Mod May 30 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ I recently learned that one way the Engineering school at Texas A&M has increased retention is by taking responsibility to teach the required math/physics/chemistry courses themselves - too many engineering students were washing out of those courses. One can debate the wisdom, perhaps, but as I'm finding with a engineering student in the household, there is lots of stuff in a math-taught calculus class that, frankly, I never used in my entire career. Why spend a week on limits and whatnot if you aren't going into math? When did I ever use a trig substitution in an integral? $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jun 7 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @JonCuster I think those maths are only useful for theoretical or physical chemistry. Integration/other calculus/matrix diagonalisation etc. are routine in the theoretical side. Whereas for inorganic and organic they are probably unnecessary. $\endgroup$ – S R Maiti Jun 8 at 11:06

Writing meta answers can be a bit tough, because sometimes I speak as a moderator and sometimes I speak as a user, and it's not always clear which is which. So let me be extra clear here...

As a moderator: historically such questions are considered off-topic

There is some precedent here, but it is quite loose, and I don't think it is codified anywhere. The reason for this is simply a strict interpretation of the "on-topic questions" in the Help Centre. I have closed some of these questions myself in the past, and would have closed the one in the question, but for the discussion here.

Obviously, that list of "on-topic questions" cannot be exhaustive. However, the spirit of that text is that we accept questions about the scientific aspects of chemistry itself, i.e. stuff that you would be taught in a chemistry course, or read in a chemistry book.

Pedagogy, or teaching, is an entirely separate matter: that's why, for example, there are different types of doctorates for education and for science. That's also why there are different Stack Exchange sites for this sort of question: for example, there is Mathematics and Mathematics Educators. And there used to be a Science Educators Area 51 site, but I suspect that never really took off.

As a user: I would not like such questions here

IMO, the main problem with these questions is that they are either opinion-based (e.g. "How do I best learn this concept?"), or that they depend on where the OP is based (e.g. the linked question, which heavily depends on what sort of physical chemistry is covered in the syllabus). Thus, they do not have 'one true answer': they are better suited for other websites, forums, or maybe chat (although to be honest chat is dead).

Many SE sites deal with open-ended questions like these. For example, Academia has plenty of questions to which there isn't a right answer. Indeed, some sites are even centred around open-ended questions. But this is not what Chemistry has been, so far. If we want to accept this kind of question, it would represent quite a change in the site direction—not one that I'm really in favour of. I fear it is also the start of a slippery slope, because once we allow this kind of open-ended question, it's not long before we get things like "list your favourite mnemonic for memorising the Periodic Table".

Personally, I don't feel any shame in the act of turning people away. I don't think it's hurtful or rude at all to point out that this isn't the place to ask your question, and to suggest other, more suitable, places, even if that means it isn't Chemistry.SE. That's what I tried to do in my comment:

I am sorry, but this is off-topic for Chemistry.SE. Yes, your target audience is chemists, and this place has the most chemists; but Chemistry.SE is for questions about chemistry, not how to teach chemistry, or how to teach maths to chemists. Have you considered Mathematics Educators Stack Exchange? I think I can migrate the question over there; and I think it would be the best to have it migrated, and to put a link at the top of your post pointing people there so that they can contribute if interested. You are also welcome to post in [chat].

which is very different from

I'm closing this question because it has literally nothing to do with chemistry.

That would be unhelpful, and not very nice, and I would feel bad doing that. But I don't feel bad posting my actual comment.

As a moderator: if the users want them, then we will allow them

Judging by the response to the question, and the votes on the question comments, it is clear that at least some portion of the Chemistry community is happy with this kind of question. I think it's quite possible that more people will disagree with me than agree.

If that is the direction that the community wants to move the site in, then we can codify that in this meta post right here. That would set some kind of precedent, which we can refer back to when people ask about it.

It doesn't matter so much what my personal opinion of it is; I won't veto something just because I don't like it, and neither will the other mods. (FWIW, maybe the other mods disagree with me. I haven't asked them :-))

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    $\begingroup$ I doubt they would find a good fit elsewhere on SE. Math educators sounds promising but is likely to be disappointing. The question is really what kind of math foundation should the students have, and that, as pointed out in comments to the Q, depends on the department's goals, teachers, programs and other available courses. Also this goes unmentioned (although you allude to this point by suggesting the Q should be punted) namely why would chemists devote time to teaching a math for scientists and engineers course when there usually are plenty such courses offered in other departments. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Mod May 29 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ Continuing, what makes math use in chemistry so special? My experience is that physicists and engineers often have as good or better grasp of math than chemists (because they need to use more math, read on). The unique thing in chemistry might be all the other stuff that chemists have to know in addition to math. Chemists are expected to understand physics (thermo, QM etc), analytical, orgo and inorganic chem, long list goes on, and each subdiscipline has its own requirements. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Mod May 29 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ Therefore the question risks not only being opinion based but, using the old parlance, way too broad. I think a better strategy (demonstrating again how opinion based this is) is to include math modules as necessary in each independent course. P-chem might be exceptional. The requirements there are similar to those for physics or engineering. $\endgroup$ – Buck Thorn Mod May 29 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ Right now I would have felt I have a handle on questions like these and could probably determine what to do with them. If the community were to decide that these types of questions are on topic, then I'm not sure I'll be able to judge that from an objective point of view. So, while I can't veto a decision by the community, I totally would in this case if I could. $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Mod May 31 at 20:29

I mostly agree with orthocresol, but I need to go on the record here.

Should questions like these be on-topic for this site?

No. (From all points of view I can think of.)

There have been well-intentioned questions about teaching chemistry shut down in the past, closed as off-topic, down-voted, the whole shabang. I didn't always agree with that, but in most cases I could follow the trend and the argument.
What is suggested here would be opening up a plethora of grey shades. As a moderator I will have a hard time deciding on these if they became controversial; and since my work here is voluntarily, and I refuse to do something that makes me uncomfortable, so I will simply not do it. This is not me being pity or pedantic about the "rules", this is just me saying I won't have a clue what to do. You have that on the record now.


I would like to comment specifically about the question first. We try to give universal answers to questions, but this is not appropriate (not possible) for this question. You have to know something about the students, how much math they know coming in, which courses they are required to take before graduation, and who the chemistry and math faculty are in the specific department. The "correct" answer will be almost useless for all other institutions. So the OP can use the comments to figure out what questions to ask the local colleagues, but not as a basis for making curricular decisions.

This makes it impossible to give a good answer, and impossible to select the best answer from a set of available answer. The benefit to the OP is to see the range of comments given, many of which contradict each other in their recommendations. So it might make sense to just let the commenting go for a couple of days and then close the question.

I don't think anyone was offended or annoyed by the question or the OP. For those type of questions, I feel we should close quickly, as a way to direct the OP and relieve stress on the community. On the other hand, I don't think we should encourage questions like this, and I don't think we they should remain on the site longer than a couple of days.

  • $\begingroup$ Closing a question doesn't stop comments; so in theory, if people wanted to, it could be closed and people could still comment. That's my ideal solution, IMO: just close and let people comment if they want. However, I suspect that in practice, closing it would almost certainly stifle discussion. $\endgroup$ – orthocresol Mod Jun 7 at 15:26

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