Demographic shifts are occurring in science and engineering: The number of women graduating with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry in the U.S. has exceeded that of men for more than 10 years. And at colleges and universities across the U.S., the proportion of women in tenure-track chemistry faculty positions has been rising.
Club participants use kitchen ingredients to make play dough and learn chemistry basics such as measuring pH. These exercises prepare them for a soap-making project in which they handle reactive chemicals and wear safety goggles.
The reasons for these shifts are many, including grassroots science and engineering education programs aimed at grabbing and holding the interest of girls. In one such effort, assistant chemistry professor Aisling M. O’Connor at Fitchburg State University, in Massachusetts, recently created a chemistry education module for the Science Club for Girls (SCFG), a Boston-area nonprofit education organization with a mission to improve science literacy.
The module introduces concepts of sustainability and green chemistry by exploring the science behind personal care products—items most girls have a keen interest in. O’Connor enlisted the assistance of Jillian Toomey, one of her Fitchburg undergraduate students, to help develop the activities.
The sustainability/green chemistry curriculum, which debuted in June, is designed to be a four-day vacation-week program. A dozen girls in grades 4–6 start with an ice-breaking activity to get to know each other—to improve their “chemistry.” Through various activities, they learn that green chemistry is a focused effort with a set of guiding principles to encourage scientists and engineers to reduce or eliminate waste, use safer chemicals, and create energy-efficient methods to make products.
The first hands-on activity is making generic play dough from flour, water, salt, cream of tartar, and canola oil; a dash of food coloring, peppermint oil, and glitter add flair. The procedure, O’Connor notes, purposefully includes unnecessary steps and generates a lot of waste.
The girls then take turns reading aloud the Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax,” a favorite of green chemists because it explains sustainability in a simple way that people of all ages can understand. In this fable, the Once-ler, an indiscriminate industrialist, chops down all the truffula trees to get woolly tufts to knit thneeds, a kind of sweater. The Lorax, an environmentalist, speaks up to protect the trees and the creatures of the forest. Eventually all the trees are cut and the Once-ler can no longer make any products, plus the environment becomes saturated with pollution.
The girls discuss the moral of the story: People should try to manufacture products that are not harmful to the environment and don’t deplete natural resources. The curriculum instructs teachers how to make the connection that scientists and engineers design and implement manufacturing processes, like making thneeds, but by applying concepts of green chemistry they can design processes that reduce impacts on human health and the environment.
Returning to their play dough procedure, the girls start picking it apart, O’Connor relates, looking where they can improve their product—throughout its design, synthesis, and use—so that it is greener. For example, they learn they can reuse materials such as plastic spoons and cups to measure ingredients instead of throwing them away each time, and that adding some ingredients or heating their mixtures isn’t really necessary.
In other activities throughout the module, such as making fizzy bath balls from baking soda and citric acid, the girls learn chemistry basics: different types of reactions, chemical bonding, acids and bases, how surfactants work, and how to make scientific observations and record data.
O’Connor learned about SCFG through a friend. “A lot of girls think science is only for boys,” she observes. “The whole idea for Science Club for Girls is not to exclude boys, but to encourage girls to become interested in science and engineering.”
SCFG was founded in 1994 by a group of parents and is now led by a team of women scientists and engineers. It offers free, hands-on programs at schools, churches, and community centers to more than 1,000 girls, many of whom come from low-income neighborhoods.
Some parts of the curriculum are chemistry based, O’Connor explains, but it covers other topics such as human and animal biology, earth science and archaeology, and electricity and mechanics. After she ran several SCFG clubs in the Fitchburg area, she decided to contribute further by expanding the chemistry modules.
A key component of the sustainability/green chemistry module is a model Toomey came up with to show how surfactants work. The model uses balls of play dough the girls make to represent polar, water-loving head groups and bobby pins inserted into the balls to represent nonpolar, water-hating alkyl chain tails. Subsequently sticking the bobby pins of several surfactant molecules into a foam ball, representing a blob of hydrocarbon oil, creates an assembly that resembles the micelle that would form if all the molecular components were in water.
“We use this exercise as a teach-back,” O’Connor says, explaining that “the girls make this model during the day and then take it home. At home they explain to their families how surfactants work by helping to loosen and remove dirt and oil and how they are important in soaps, shampoos, and laundry detergents.”
The collective learning during the module sets the girls up for their capstone project, O’Connor notes, which is to make bars of soap from different vegetable oils, lye (sodium hydroxide), and a touch of lavender oil and herbs. As part of the activity, the girls use an online cosmetics database to evaluate the health and safety attributes of five commercially available soaps and then evaluate and compare the attributes of the soaps they make.
O’Connor and Toomey began spreading the word about their curriculum last spring. Toomey presented the project at the Northeast Undergraduate Research & Development Symposium (NURDS) held in March at the University of New England, in Biddeford, Maine.
Among those who heard Toomey’s NURDS talk was Denyce K. Wicht, an associate chemistry professor at Suffolk University, in Boston. Wicht immediately saw how easily the surfactant model could be used in her own classroom. “While senior chemistry and biochemistry majors should have a solid conceptual grasp of how surfactants work,” Wicht says, “using this type of visual cue to remind them of what is going on can serve an important pedagogical purpose.”
In July, O’Connor talked about the module at ChemEd 2011, a conference held at Western Michigan University. Dalila G. Kovacs, an associate chemistry professor at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Mich., videotaped O’Connor’s presentation and plans to post the video to the Michigan Green Chemistry Clearinghouse, a virtual green chemistry resource that is getting set to launch.
O’Connor’s module is among the few available for young children that introduces difficult-to-grasp sustainability concepts, Kovacs says. Reading the Lorax story followed by discussion and using the soap exercise to explain hydrophobicity/hydrophilicity and surfactants, coupled with the other activities, she adds, “is ingenious, simple, and efficient.”
The green personal care module will be beneficial for other after-school and community programs, O’Connor believes. “Our goal is to make girls everywhere aware of green chemistry so they can be educated consumers,” O’Connor says, “plus increase their enthusiasm for science.”