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Charting the Future of Green Chemistry Education

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Dr. Mary Kirchhoff, Director, ACS Education Division

PORTLAND, Ore.—Before the ubiquitous cell phone came on the scene, people used physical road maps to figure out how to drive from Point A to Point B. The road atlas of the U.S. was our constant companion during a family vacation driving from Silver Spring, Maryland to Yellowstone National Park in 1994. Road maps remain valuable tools (especially those accessible from your phone) when traveling, but the term “road map” has a second meaning according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: A plan for achieving a goal.

The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® (ACS GCI) began exploring the creation of a Green Chemistry Education Roadmap in 2012, and efforts focused on achieving this goal have accelerated over the past four years. A survey of faculty was conducted in 2015 to assess current chemistry teaching practices, the importance of teaching select green chemistry concepts and barriers to curriculum changes. Over 500 faculty responded to the survey, 84 percent of whom noted that it is essential for students to understand chemical hazards and exposure, including identifying environmental, safety and health hazards, and selecting and designing chemicals that are less hazardous alternatives to known chemical and products. Seventy percent of the respondents indicated that an overcrowded curriculum was the biggest barrier to teaching green chemistry concepts, which indicates the need to integrate green chemistry concepts and practices into the existing curriculum.

In September 2015, a visioning workshop brought together key stakeholders to articulate a vision for the roadmap and identify the future state that will be achieved through the roadmap. The vision for the roadmap that emerged from the workshop was “Chemistry education that equips and inspires chemists to help solve the grand challenges of sustainability.” Discussions during the workshop focused on the current state of chemistry education and the steps needed to achieve the vision, at which point all chemistry will be green.

This discussion laid the foundation for a draft set of green chemistry core competencies, which were developed following the visioning workshop.  The four draft competencies embody the knowledge, skills, and abilities that a chemistry or chemical engineering graduate should possess:

  1. Graduates will be able to design and/or select chemicals that improve product and sustainability (societal/human, environmental and economic) performance from a life cycle perspective.
  2. Graduates will be able to design and/or select chemical processes that are highly efficient, that take advantage of alternative feedstocks, and that do so while generating the least amount of waste.
  3. Graduates will understand how chemicals can be used/integrated into products to achieve the best benefit to customers while minimizing life cycle sustainability impacts.
  4. Graduates will be able to think about and make decisions taking into account life cycle thinking and systems analysis.

These competencies provided the framework for the roadmapping workshop held in Portland, Oregon in June 2016.  An expanded group of stakeholders identified a set of core elements that underpin each competency. For example, in order to achieve competency three, students need to understand integrated product design; understand product impact, function, and performance; and understand and apply life cycle thinking. Workshop participants further analyzed these core elements and proposed knowledge objectives embedded within the core elements. Continuing with competency three to illustrate this approach, some knowledge objectives include understanding how to start with function and design; realizing that customer desires can lead to many product concepts; and understanding the basis of formulation.

A critical insight during the workshop was that the overarching competency that distinguishes this roadmap from the way chemistry is currently taught is systems thinking, which may serve as the anchoring concept in reforming chemistry education to help solve the grand challenges of sustainability. Workshop participants also noted that changes in the curriculum should be accompanied by changes in pedagogy.

The roadmapping workshop advanced the development of the roadmap itself, and much work lies ahead to fully develop this strategy. Ongoing and future activities include creating an inventory of available resources; communicating roadmap progress at conferences; designing professional development opportunities; and facilitating collaborations between chemistry and chemical engineering departments.

A critical component in developing the roadmap is community engagement, and we invite you to share your thoughts and ideas at

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