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Mapping out the future of green chemistry education

by William F. Carroll Jr., Chair, ACS Green Chemistry Institute Advisory Board
August 2, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 31


Photo of William Carroll Jr.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
William Carroll Jr.

Each generation of chemists asks themselves how they can best prepare the next generation of chemists. How can we provide aspiring chemists with the knowledge and skills they need to flourish in the global economy? What research and mentoring opportunities can we offer? How can we help students build their professional networks? But above and beyond these questions, we also need to ask: How can we instill in the next generation the skills and tools they need to practice chemistry in a green and sustainable way?

In 2014, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute (ACS GCI) began mapping out the future of green chemistry education through its green chemistry education road map project. This project has articulated an aspirational vision for green chemistry education: “Chemistry education that equips and inspires chemists to solve the grand challenges of sustainability.” This vision aligns with the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs), whose achievement strongly depends on chemistry.

Here’s what we mean by a road map: a road map identifies short- and long-term goals, describes implementation strategies and resources needed to achieve the goals, and aligns stakeholders around the vision articulated in the road map. The road map project has proposed three core competencies, and graduates who master these competencies will be able to design and select chemicals, syntheses, and products from a sustainability, life-cycle, and systems perspective.

The road map project revealed a number of interesting and productive detours along the way.

Early in the roadmap project, ACS GCI conducted a faculty survey to identify key green chemistry concepts and the barriers that prevent faculty from integrating them effectively into the curriculum. Eighty-five percent of the respondents reported that students need to understand chemical hazards and exposures, and half of all respondents noted that students should understand chemicals in the environment, reaction efficiency, and life-cycle impacts of chemicals. Respondents identified a crowded curriculum, inability to remain current on technical knowledge, and a lack of curricular resources as barriers to including green chemistry concepts in their classes.

So there’s the gap. Faculty think students should learn green chemistry fundamentals but don’t know how to teach them effectively. ACS GCI feels it can help fill this gap.

One way we’ve approached this is through the annual Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy. With this year’s class of 63 participants, more than 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from the US, Canada, and Latin America will have participated in this program, which began with National Science Foundation support in 2003 at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay. Participants in the summer school have started their own companies, launched academic careers (sending their own students to the summer school), assumed leadership roles in industry, and acknowledged the impact of the summer school on their careers.

The road map project revealed a number of interesting and productive detours along the way. A collaboration with the ACS Exams Institute has facilitated the introduction of green chemistry into the Anchoring Concepts Content Maps (ACCM). These maps organize chemistry content in the undergraduate curriculum around 10 anchoring concepts. These 10 big ideas are further broken down into enduring understandings, subdiscipline articulations, and content details. Earlier this year, the ACS Exams Institute and ACS GCI convened several organic chemistry faculty members to begin embedding green chemistry content within the ACCM.

The idea of systems thinking is gaining traction among chemistry educators. Systems thinking has been defined as “the ability to understand and interpret complex systems.” ACS GCI has been an active participant in the Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education project of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Later this year, ACS’s Journal of Chemical Education will publish a special issue titled “Reimagining Chemistry Education: Systems Thinking, and Green and Sustainable Chemistry.” New curricular resources that blend green chemistry with systems thinking are needed to enable students to practice chemistry in a more holistic way.

At the recent IUPAC Congress in Paris, keynote speaker Steven Chu stated: “The chemists need to lead the charge to save the planet.” Many of the SDGs—such as zero hunger; good health and well-being; affordable and clean energy; climate action; and industry, innovation, and infrastructure—will not be achieved without chemistry. Underpinning all of these goals is SDG 4: quality education. And don’t forget: education is ACS goal 3—if not us, then who?

This is a marvelous confluence of what ACS and the world are trying to accomplish. We’re hoping that implementation of the road map can help revitalize the chemistry curriculum and prepare today’s students to contribute, through chemistry, to a sustainable planet.

If you have comments or suggestions, please email them to me at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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