Since 2015, I have had the opportunity to present chemistry to and discuss chemistry careers with secondary school students throughout Victoria, building on the RACI Victoria Branch’s Hartung Youth Lecture series, which I delivered that year. These students have been inner-city, suburban, regional, rural and from both government and non-government systems. I have been encouraged by their desire to understand chemical principles, but concerned about their opinions on chemistry in general and dismayed by their views on undertaking a career in the chemistry professions. Chemistry has become so strongly linked with many of society’s problems in their eyes that it has become imperative to redefine a career in chemistry for Gen Z.
Many students display a strong disconnect in their relationship with chemistry, viewing chemical careers as perpetuating problems rather than also being part of the solution. I have come to realise that much of this negativity and disapproval relates to issues facing society and the role of chemistry in creating them. These include climate change, air pollution, plastics and their build-up in the environment and oceans, pesticide and herbicide degradation of natural ecosystems, fertilisers and synthetic chemicals and their links to adverse human health, as well as water and soil contamination. These concerns are completely justified; however, students don’t recognise that these issues are multi-faceted and thus require a range of complex solutions, and sometimes many years of effort, to address.
This disconnect for students, I believe, strongly stems from society’s perceptions of a ‘chemical career’. Chemical engineers are synonymous with the oil and natural gas industry, therefore seen as contributing to climate change. Industrial chemists are associated with plastics and hazardous chemicals, therefore responsible for waste, pollution and environmental degradation. And agricultural chemists fabricate pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, and are marked responsible for ecosystem destruction and native species decline. Gen Z students see themselves as being the generation that must fix the mistakes of their predecessors; with such a negative view of chemistry and chemistry professionals, why would they want to pursue chemistry as a career?
Increasingly, secondary students seem to see a way forward mainly through political action: rallying, lobbying and voting for particular political parties. This is most notable in action on climate change, with thousands of students protesting for government action. This is completely understandable; however, many students I have spoken with have the naive belief that, when they reach voting age, their support of climate change action will lead to government policy changes and the problem will be solved, irrespective of scientific solutions. Banning of certain agricultural chemicals to improve health and the environment is a focus of political activity, as demonstrated by the backlash against Roundup, but there is no public discussion about alternatives for farmers. This intense focus on politics detracts from developing sustainable solutions, which requires strong scientific and technical literacy in the workforce of the future.
To direct students into the chemical professions, we must show secondary students the importance of chemistry in these issues, redefining and promoting chemistry’s role. I have engaged their interest in chemistry by associating the chemical professions with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. They are a superb example of the need for chemistry to create solutions. Gen Z is clearly very conscious of global and sustainable issues, more so than previous generations, and they strongly identify with and are willing to pursue careers focused on addressing these challenges. Of the 17 goals set out by the UN, chemistry is intrinsic to nine of them (see box).
I have found these sustainability goals and their link to chemistry to be good springboards from which students can explore how scientific and technical careers will have a positive impact on many people’s lives. Importantly, the diversity of the goals provides the opportunity to tailor the message about the chemistry career pathways to prospective students based on their perceived areas of concern.
Equally important in engagement is direct contact of students with chemical professionals and the diverse fields of chemists and chemical engineers, as well as the diverse people in the chemical profession. This can only be achieved by professionals taking the time to go to schools and talking with students at all year levels. I believe this direct interaction is the best way to counter the popular media image of chemistry and simplification of the field. This is difficult and takes time, but direct interaction with students is important for their progress, and is rewarding in its own right.