The Ivory Tower Goes Green | September 8, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 36 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 36 | pp. 64-66
Issue Date: September 8, 2008

The Ivory Tower Goes Green

Green chemistry in the curriculum boosts student interest in science
Department: Education | Collection: Green Chemistry
King (left) and Boice of Simmons College are green advocates. King's project focused on characterizing the antibacterial and antimicrobial activities of lactic acid. Boice initiated the cups-to-cleaners project.
Credit: Simmons College
King (left) and Boice of Simmons College are green advocates. King's project focused on characterizing the antibacterial and antimicrobial activities of lactic acid. Boice initiated the cups-to-cleaners project.
Credit: Simmons College

A FEW YEARS AGO, one of Irv Levy's students told him she wanted to write her organic chemistry research paper on green chemistry. Levy was skeptical. He didn't think green chemistry sounded like "real chemistry."

"It sounded like touchy-feely tree hugging," he recalls. "I recommended that she consider another topic, but she insisted." So he reluctantly agreed.

In the meantime, Levy, an organic chemistry professor at Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass., attended a panel discussion on green chemistry at the 2003 American Chemical Society national meeting in New Orleans, prompted by his student's interest. He says he came out of the session with a totally new outlook.

"I felt like my career had changed," he says. "Green chemistry went from two words to something that I couldn't ignore." He was so motivated by the session that he applied to attend a workshop on green chemistry in education at the University of Oregon, an experience he calls "transformational."

Gordon College is a member of the Green Chemistry Education Network (GCEdNet), a clearinghouse for green chemistry educational materials created by Julie A. Haack of the University of Oregon (C&EN, May 28, 2007, page 38). GCEdNet is made up of regional networks of "ambassador sites," where peer-led teams collaborate to develop and disseminate curriculum materials.

Because of its high concentration of colleges and universities integrating green chemistry principles in their science classes, New England is one of GCEdNet's four ambassador sites.

Credit: Beyond Benign Foundation
Credit: Beyond Benign Foundation

The nexus of green chemistry in New England is the Beyond Benign Foundation,, led by Amy S. Cannon, the first person to earn a Ph.D. in green chemistry, from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Located in Woburn, Mass., near Boston, Beyond Benign is a nonprofit task force that promotes green chemistry in the community, industry, and academia. The foundation draws on the talents of many New England universities' faculty members who are incorporating green chemistry into their instruction.

As part of its mission, Beyond Benign engages in K–12 interactive partnerships and classroom visits, museum visits, and other informational events. Members of the New England network recruit their students and volunteer their own time to interact with students and the public. Each year, for example, the foundation sponsors a green chemistry day at Boston's Museum of Science that attracts approximately 600 high school students. The students participate in activities and demonstrations to see green chemistry in practice, such as making solar cells from natural materials or designing a photoresist material from a DNA mimic. Cannon calls them "hard-core, real-world industrial examples of green chemistry."

She believes that green chemistry outreach is a wonderful way to encourage students to study the sciences. In the New England area, GCEdNet not only engages in outreach to community groups but also strives to incorporate green chemistry concepts into the college-level curriculum. GCEdNet, Cannon says, is the key to disseminating green chemistry curriculum. "We're contacted frequently by people who want to hold a green chemistry workshop," she says. "And to have this support system of people, who are already incorporating green chemistry into the curriculum, that we can just tap and easily put together a workshop is really wonderful."

Lots of online resources are available for educators who want to integrate green chemistry information and projects into their curriculum

As the principles of green chemistry and sustainability in general are playing a greater role in the chemical industry (C&EN, Aug. 18, page 42), there is a growing need to educate chemists in this area. Students are arriving on college campuses with a passionate concern for the environment, looking for ways to integrate that interest into their education. At the same time, colleges and universities are embracing sustainability and working to create a sustainable campus infrastructure. The time is right for chemistry to show how it can be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem, Cannon and many others say.

"Most people teaching green chemistry recognize that you don't simply add on new material," says Paul T. Anastas, head of the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale University. "If you integrate the traditional material with green chemistry concepts, you're adding a new perspective. The faculty's enthusiasm comes from their students' excitement. Students who are struggling through chemistry are now excited and engaged because they see the relevance of green chemistry to their lives."

One of the founding members of GCEdNet is Rich Gurney, a chemistry professor at Simmons College, an all women's college in Boston where more than 80% of the students are engaged in service learning. "There are a lot of socially active, environmentally conscious students, especially in the sciences," he says.

At Simmons the green chemistry course was developed to target both majors and nonmajors. Gurney uses case studies that consider both chemical and nonchemical factors surrounding environmental tragedies to encourage his students' desire to learn. One example is the chemical leak from a pesticide-making facility at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, the world's largest ever industrial accident, which resulted in as many as 10,000 deaths and estimates of up to 100,000 injured. Gurney says that what makes the connections for the students, many of whom weren't alive when the accident occurred, is learning about the socioeconomic and political aspects of the issue.

"STUDENTS ARE DRIVEN to learn the fundamentals of chemistry," Gurney says, "because they can connect their day-to-day decision-making directly to the environmental tragedy; for example, learning that the pesticide was used for cotton crops and how consumer choices influenced its creation. That leads to a discussion of how pesticides work and their hazards. It set the stage for me to learn how to teach chemistry in a completely different way."

Gurney ultimately ended up discarding the curriculum he had prepared because the students' desire to learn was so strong. "I taught on the fly and taught concepts I hadn't necessarily planned on teaching," he adds. What he found most rewarding was watching his students find information that wasn't readily available.

Visitors learn about aqueous photoresists at Boston's Museum of Science.
Credit: Beyond Benign Foundation
Visitors learn about aqueous photoresists at Boston's Museum of Science.
Credit: Beyond Benign Foundation

Learning green chemistry has converted Gurney's students into advocates for the cause. Jennifer Boice developed a method to convert the discarded polylactic acid cups used in the cafeteria into a green cleaner to remove lime scale and soap scum in the college's bathrooms. Christina King is studying the cleaner's antimicrobial properties and developing a laboratory experience for microbiology classes. The project led to a campuswide reclamation program: Students collect the cups, which are converted to lactic acid that is then distributed across campus as a cleaner.

Bridgewater State College's green chemistry program has grown steadily over the past decade. Edward J. Brush, an associate professor at Bridgewater, attributes the growth to a proactive administration and an excellent institutional reputation in science and chemistry education, focusing heavily on student engagement.

"Environmental issues are very important here in southeastern Massachusetts," he says. "Students are aware of these issues and are already coming into the program with an environmental bent, so green chemistry is an easy sell. The administration realizes that sustainability is not only good for the way we're educating students, it makes economic sense as well."

In 2007, Bridgewater was one of the charter signatories of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), found online at Presidents who sign on to this commitment pledge to reduce or neutralize their campuses' greenhouse gas emissions. More than 500 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are represented in ACUPCC.

Brush says that integrating green chemistry into the curriculum has come slowly but surely. Many of the green chemistry labs he and his colleagues use can be found in "Green Organic Chemistry: Strategies, Tools, and Laboratory Experiments," by Kenneth Doxsee and James Hutchinson. For example, an environmentally benign synthesis of the nylon monomer adipic acid uses hydrogen peroxide as the oxidant and water as the solvent, teaching the benefits of using a recyclable catalyst. The experiment presents recrystallization and phase-transfer catalysis techniques and introduces students to polymer chemistry.

Brush's organic chemistry students are exposed to green chemistry in the first semester by using waste oil to make biodiesel. "They learn about the value of catalysis for converting waste into energy—waste vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel," he says. The students perform the semimicroscale reaction on an open lab bench, and at the end of three hours, they have a sample to analyze and verify through standard methods.

THE STUDENTS are learning about benign alternatives to the way chemistry is usually done, and they learn good lab techniques, say the faculty C&EN talked with. The students enjoy the green chemistry labs; they gain confidence plus a greater appreciation for the value of chemistry in their everyday lives.

Student engagement through undergraduate research is a key component of science education at Bridgewater. Students are developing green chemistry methods for syntheses and are following green chemistry principles to evaluate the large-scale synthesis of biodiesel and the cost and safety of building a pilot plant to convert the college's waste oil to biodiesel. "Even students who are not thinking green chemistry all the time are calculating their reaction atom economy and tracking the waste they're producing, so word is getting out," Brush says. "That's a great benefit to our majors after they graduate." The term atom economy refers to the no-waste ideal by which every atom that goes into a reaction comes out as a useful product.

In contrast, Margaret Kerr, an associate professor of Worcester State College, in Massachusetts, was able to immediately implement green chemistry in her department. After a colleague's sudden retirement in 2003, Kerr found herself in charge of the organic chemistry lab. She had recently heard about green chemistry, she says, and attended the Oregon workshop—"everyone gets their start there," she says—after which, she returned "fired up" about green chemistry.

"I took all our old labs and totally overhauled them, except for the labs that were technique driven, like thin-layer chromatography," she says. "The overall curriculum is green, and now we just tweak it since you can't make a lab green all at once."

Students are also required to write a paper on a green chemistry topic of their choice. A lot of them go for current-events topics such as biofuels debates or how green the pharmaceutical industry is, she says. More interesting to her is how students will take green chemistry ideas and insert them into other courses, such as the advanced inorganic course Kerr teaches, where students do a lot of writing. Green chemistry sends the message that you can be a chemist and be responsible, she adds.

In fact, all of the faculty members C&EN spoke with say that green chemistry outreach efforts have brought positive feedback for their departments and for their schools and have given their departments a higher profile on campus and even in the international community. Those efforts have also had a positive impact on enrollment and interest in green chemistry among both majors and nonmajors.

One GOLum outreach project is to make soap using biodiesel glycerin by-product, saponified hydrogenated vegetable oil, saponified soybean oil, and aromatic essential oil. Bars of the soap will be given away at this month's opening of Gordon College's new science center.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
One GOLum outreach project is to make soap using biodiesel glycerin by-product, saponified hydrogenated vegetable oil, saponified soybean oil, and aromatic essential oil. Bars of the soap will be given away at this month's opening of Gordon College's new science center.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

BRUSH AND MANY of his students have participated in Beyond Benign's green chemistry day at Boston's Museum of Science, where the students perform hands-on demos such as preparing biodiesel. Many of the students are interested in teaching careers, Brush says, so it's a good opportunity for them to interact with students to demonstrate the benefits of green chemistry.

As co-coordinator of the campus sustainability center, Brush says there have been discussions at the department and campus levels about sustainability, such as how to educate undergraduate chemistry majors for careers in a sustainable chemistry enterprise. Because chemistry crosses many areas of campus operations—from grounds-keeping to housekeeping to maintenance—he believes chemists need to be involved.

At Gordon College the spring term paper has been replaced with a semester-long outreach project called the Green Organic Literacy Forum, or GOLum. Students have to identify an audience that hasn't heard about green chemistry and then design material to be presented to that group. Past projects include developing a curriculum to be used by teachers to talk about green chemistry and outreach to local high schools.

GOLum has enhanced Levy's department's visibility. "We weren't seeking any kind of affirmation, but it's poured out at us," he says. "The college is embracing what we do, and the president mentions it to the board of trustees when talking about sustainability issues on campus. The local newspaper has said positive things about green chemistry efforts in our curriculum." In the past five years, Gordon students have gone to nearly every ACS national meeting to present their work.

At Simmons, green chemistry has taken root: The college has taken concrete steps to improve its sustainability. The recently completed library renovation features many green elements, such as cork flooring and improved energy performance. The school also has a sustainability committee, made up of students, that coordinates environmental efforts on campus. The "Switch Your Bulb" program distributes free compact fluorescent light bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs and provides a closet to safely collect used bulbs for recycling. Also, every first-year student receives a free compact fluorescent bulb with her orientation packet. "Project Move Out" collects items left by students moving out of residence halls and donates them to various community groups.

In 2007, Kerr was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant to go to Thailand to promote green chemistry curriculum development at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok. There she taught green chemistry and worked with Supawan Tantayanon, who has been active in the worldwide green chemistry community. The pair developed green chemistry labs for a kit that would make chemistry accessible to those who wouldn't otherwise have it, such as rural schools.

Chemistry has had a well-established curriculum for a long time, so "making change takes patience, persistence, and leadership," Brush says. However, proponents of green chemistry would agree that it is growing and thriving.


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