Bringing Sustainability to the Chemistry Classroom

Chemistry naturally lends itself to discussions about sustainability, which has woven itself into the fabric of my career. In graduate school I found interesting work using surfactants in carbon dioxide, and this work led to being on a team that won the national Presidential Green Challenge Award in 1997. My postdoctoral work was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through its Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes. During my time working in industry, we were often tasked with reducing waste and increasing efficiency though development of products.

Now, as a faculty member, I find myself engaged in the teaching and learning of eco-friendly concepts and activities in a community of colleagues and students. When I began teaching the Chemistry, Technology, and Society class at Duke University in 2013, I knew that I would learn much more about the environmental impacts of my discipline. What surprised me most was how much my students taught me about the economic and social elements of sustainability.

The first week of the semester, though we had not covered any actual chemistry yet, we completed a process oriented guided inquiry learning exercise focused on a discussion of sustainability. The focus on opportunities for either benefit or harm related to the discipline set a stage that put future learning in context.

The activity we completed in class, What is Sustainability and What Does Chemistry Have to do with it?, was created and generously shared by my colleague Prof. Katherine Aubrecht, who teaches in the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University. Students read published definitions from the Brundtland Report and thoughts on the meaning of sustainability from Eric Zencey’s “Theses on Sustainability.” The student groups also brainstormed changes in human behaviors or technological developments that they thought could decrease the negative environmental effects of human activity. As a class, we made a class list of their ideas, which included many ideas from a public policy and/or economic perspective.

In this moment, I began to fully realize the rich resource the class would provide for my own learning and enlightenment. This natural science general education course provided a tremendous learning advantage: The student-centered discussion format and the diversity of the student ages and choices of majors provided perspectives on sustainability through the lenses of different disciplines. Seniors majoring in economics or religious studies shared viewpoints that one doesn’t frequently encounter in large service lectures to organic chemistry classrooms populated by eighty percent pre-medical students.

Sustainability became a framework around which the majority of the topics in the course were discussed. Mundane processes, such as becoming proficient at the task of balancing chemical equations and calculation of product yields, came to life as we examined examples of the pollutants caused by incomplete gasoline combustion. In another chapter, the challenge of organic chemical synthesis of new medicines segued into enlightening readings on the global health impact of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The unit on polymerization led to a particularly lively discussion about the best waste management strategies for man-made plastics.

After attending the Trillium faculty workshop in 2015, I became more intentional in thinking about sustainability components in other courses I teach. In Organic Chemistry, students learn multiple synthetic methods. Invariably, some students want me to tell them definitively which method should be used to make a certain functional group (or, in some cases, they are searching for which route I want them to use to earn maximum points on a test while minimizing the number of reactions remembered). When multiple synthetic methods can result in the same organic product, students must consider which one is “the best”? While it is always tempting to say simply that the reaction with the highest yield of the desired product is the best­­­–and that is often the case–in the real world other factors are also taken into consideration. Scientists and engineers must consider the reactivity and sensitivity of other parts of the molecule, stereochemistry, types of solvents used, amount and type of waste involved, safety concerns such as health hazards of the chemicals used, amount of time and energy needed for the reaction and purification steps, ability to implement recycling, and other process considerations. Ultimately, the decision about which route is “the best” for a particular synthesis very often comes down to a combination of sustainability factors.

In the next academic year, I plan to write some learning objectives more directly relating to these important factors in the unit plans for my Organic Chemistry classes. I thank the Trillium program for encouraging me in that direction.