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19th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference: “Greening Your Research” Student Workshop and Education Sessions

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Contributed by Ashley Baker, Intern, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®

Early Monday morning, leading up to the 19th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference (GC&E), this year’s student workshop began with nearly seven dozen alphabetized nametags and a matching number of chairs set at two long rows of tables inside the ACS Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

From Thailand to Ohio, and from Brazil to Ireland, the next generation of green chemists gathered to participate in a “Greening Your Research” workshop to learn about green chemistry principles, metrics, and how to incorporate greener practices into their own research. There was a buzz of excitement as students introduced themselves in a room of peers who shared their same passion; a unifying purpose – to learn more about green chemistry - created a sense of community even before the first presentation.

student workshop.jpgDr. Peter Mahaffy, professor of chemistry at the King’s University (Edmonton), opened the day asking if there were any chefs in the room, followed by a quote from Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice,

“It is no more excusable for a fireman not to know that a fire burns, or a chef not to know that knife cuts, than for chemists not to know the character of the tools of their trade.  Equipped, or burdened, with this knowledge, the chemist must confront responsibilities….Because chemists possess the understanding of molecular manipulation and have the information necessary to assess how these manipulations may or may not put human health and the environment at risk, they have entered an era where this knowledge must play a central role in the conduct of the trade.  This realization by the purveyors of green chemistry is being viewed as an opportunity rather than a limitation.”

Mahaffy then asked participants at each table about their goals for the workshop. There was a common theme to the answers: to explore what tools are needed to create a sustainable future and to take those tools back to their labs. One student summarized for his group, “we want to be catalysts for green chemistry.”

Throughout the day, instructors David Constable (Director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute), Dr. Marie Bourgeois (University of South Florida), Dr. Peter Mahaffy, and Dr. Thomas Umile (Gwynedd Mercy University) covered topics such as green chemistry metrics, toxicology, chemical use responsibility and ethics, and classic “textbook” reactions re-imagined with consideration of environmental and safety concerns.

Even at the end of the 9-hour workshop, students continued to ask questions, discuss the potential to incorporate what they’d learned, and engage with other participants at their tables. The excitement from the beginning of the day was carried throughout with help from remarks by the instructors, including David Constable’s reminder to the group, “If we all do a few small things it really does become something meaningful.”

The following morning at the conference center, where this year’s GC&E conference fully came to life, there was a similar buzz of enthusiasm with regard to what the incorporation of green chemistry into education can achieve.

Short, rapid-fire education presentations covered a wide variety of initiatives.  Examples ranged from single classes in which green chemistry was successfully implemented, to university-wide programs, to broad-scale efforts like the roadmap for green chemistry education. Creative efforts including outreach to non-science majors, the general public and k-12 students contributed yet another possible approach. A theme of interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches emerged, and all presenters emphasized the need to move green chemistry forward.

Presentations on large-scale initiatives took a slightly different angle to the example-oriented talks and focused more on long-term planning projects. Dr. Jim Hutchison gave a progress report on the green chemistry education roadmap, giving an overview of the next steps in the process of creating a community-driven plan for defining the needs and common goals of the community. He reflected that, “We’ve made some nice progress to focus the scope of the roadmap for green chemistry education. I’m excited to take the next major step during the visioning workshop this fall.”

The visioning workshop, scheduled to take place this September, will convene a group of representative stakeholders to define the scope and metrics for the project. The difference between the smooth road that many educators see as a student’s experience in chemistry, and the reality of the bumps and curves that often exist was highlighted to emphasize the need for a roadmap. Dr. Peter Mahaffy gave an overview of how the education community might construct the green chemistry and engineering highway, suggesting that the roadmap (a) starts by identifying the travelers (students) and learning where they need to travel; (b) understands how the guides (chemists and educators) view the chemistry education road ahead; (c) is built in partnership with both chemistry educators and other sustainability science stakeholders, and should include vistas of Earth’s planetary boundaries and raise awareness of our place in time; and (d) the goal should be for the highway to become a preferred route for students and educators leading through and toward mainstream chemistry concepts. He then outlined some of the implications of this roadmap for new evidence-based pedagogical approaches.

An education workshop, led by Drs. Peter Mahaffy and Julie Haack, challenged participants to consider in what areas of the general and organic chemistry curricula green chemistry could be seamlessly integrated. Workshop participants were challenged to create new learning objectives for chemistry topics that included not only “what we know” but also required explanations of “how we know it” and “why we care.” Julie Haack noted that the “student centered approach resonated with both faculty and graduate students attending the workshop.” In evaluating the workshop, participants found that, while the activities required effort and posed some challenges, many left with concrete ideas for how to rework their own course outlines for general and organic chemistry.

The energy and passion shown throughout the GC&E conference and the student workshop were welcome reminders of the passion felt by so many students and educators. As the community works to build the roadmap for green chemistry education, it’s this kind of persistent commitment that will result in the transformation of all chemistry to green chemistry.

If you missed the conference or weren’t able to attend the education sessions, all presentations will be available for free this August at ACS Presentation on Demand.

Want to get involved? Email or visit the roadmap project website.

Are you a chemistry educator? Participate in our forthcoming survey which will soon be accessible via the above link.

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