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My Education at St. Andrews

While it is known as “study abroad,” you may have noticed a distinct lack of focus on any real studying in the happenings of my blog. This was done for a very specific reason that required immense foresight and convoluted calculations. Can you guess why?

Nooooo Mom, it’s not because there was a distinct lack of focus on any real studying in my actual life. It’s because studying isn’t fun and when faced with the option of discussing frolicking with sheep or the inner workings of tetrabutylammonium fluorination synthesis, I choose sheep.

However, if I were to discuss studying, I suppose I could entertain myself by focusing on the differences between university education in Scotland and university education in America (well tiny private school in California if that counts). So I’m going to do just that.

Lectures

At CMC, I’ve comfortably grown accustomed to having one professor for each of my four classes every semester. Each class has about 20 students in it and the professor is usually readily available to offer advice or arrange a meeting. The professor asks frequent questions and expects the same from his/her students. There are weekly assignments to ensure that students are keeping up with course material. I build relationships with the professor and other students over the course of the year and become very familiar and well adapted to the instructor’s style and testing. The weight of our grade is distributed over a wide compilation of exams, essays, and projects; this reduces the stress associated with the alternative of one all-or-nothing final at the end of the year.

I enrolled in two courses while at St. Andrews, organic chemistry and biochemistry. Yayyyyyyyyyyyy. They had significantly more class time and lab time than equivalent courses in the U.S. and my two courses had the same weight as four U.S. courses. They both followed the “module” system where each course features a number of professors that each give a series of lectures (4 to 16 lectures) in their area of expertise. While this has its benefits, like ensuring that professors are engaged in the material they are teaching and that the covered material is as relevant as possible. Unfortunately for me, the cons outweighed the pros. I did not have a personal relationship with any of my instructors and barely even knew most of their names. Also, notes were difficult to compile and organize because of the variation between the professors’ styles. There were no “recommended assignments” or group projects to serve as a life raft for my grade. With the exception of lab reports, the only assessed assignment of the year was the final exam.


Laboratory

Science labs at CMC are very structured and controlled. There is a set procedure for every day and everyone does the exact same thing. The professor heavily supervises the students during lab and demonstrates difficult techniques. Students are expected to take copious amounts of notes and there is little emphasis on the purity or yield of the final product. The labs are old and some of the equipment is from around the time CMC still stood for Claremont Men’s College.

Lab at St. Andrews was awesome. We received no instruction (unless it was requested) and were expected to follow a certain set of experiments from the manual at our own pace. This ability to exercise free will in lab was foreign and difficult at first, but I soon grew accustomed to the independence and my lab skills blossomed as a result. We were treated like professionals in a chemical industry. We were not required to take notes and our grades were largely based on product yield and purity. The lab was new and was filled with modern equipment.


Resources

I created this section to talk about one thing and one thing only – printing. I never knew it would be such a big deal to me. It took time in Scotland for me to realize I’ve been spoiled at CMC (or maybe just adequately compensated for the amount of money it costs). CMC has unlimited free printing. Online notes? I’ll print that, single sided if I’m feeling wasteful. Lecture slides? Got that. Important essay? How about we print 10 copies, ya know, just in case and plus, there’s no better feeling than burying your head in steaming hot, freshly printed essays. Course summary has a bent staple? Reprint. Paper used as aeronautic attack device? Reprint. Assignment crudely vandalized by a friend? Reprint. It is nice to reside in a land where the paper rivers are flowing. A misprint doesn’t end in a last minute funds transfer that leads to a meltdown.

The printer gods do not smile as brightly over St. Andrews. Printing is charged per piece of paper and it is not cheap. Printing errors can break friendships, ruin credit scores, and lead to accelerated hair loss. All in all, I miss my free printing.


Students

The students that were in my classes at St. Andrews live, breathe, and die chemistry. There is no “taking O-chem for med school” in Scotland. If you’re in Chem in Scotland, you’re a hardcore, molecule loving chemist. Also, my classmates were younger than me because they specialize earlier in Scotland. That intensified the damage to my pride as I got whooped by younglings on lab reports. Despite these differences, the students at St. Andrews were just as awesome as my commrades at CMC.

Overall
As a whole, I prefer my education at CMC more than my St. Andrews education. This may be because I am biased or simply more adjusted to life at CMC, but I attribute it to the flaws of the module system. The labs were better than my labs at CMC and the professors and students were just as sharp, but the lack of professor interaction and constant swapping made learning more difficult and class less enjoyable.

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