By David A. Laviska, Assistant Professor at Seton Hall University and Sarah Prescott, Associate Professor at the University of New Hampshire, Manchester
It’s not uncommon for academics working in the sciences to feel a sense of isolation (no, this isn’t a reference to the COVID pandemic that has forced an extra measure of isolation on all of us). Depending on individual research interest(s) and prior training, it’s likely that most chemists feel some sense of “working in a vacuum”. How many of us are lucky enough to have close working colleagues who have expertise similar to our own? In most traditional academic settings, each scientist occupies a unique niche and this intellectual siloing can hinder the sharing of ideas and collaborative innovation, both in the research laboratory and in teaching. The latter can be especially challenging since major changes in the classroom (for gateway courses in particular!) tend to be much more broadly “visible” to all the stakeholders in higher education (students, fellow faculty, and administration).
For those of us who recognize the value and importance of incorporating the principles of green chemistry in our research and teaching materials, inter-institutional communities have grown and flourished in recent years, encouraging collaborative bonds and paving the way for sweeping change in undergraduate education. While broad, paradigm-shifting contextualization tools like “green chemistry” and “systems thinking” have been rapidly earning devoted practitioners, traditional teaching practices and curricula are still widespread throughout institutions of higher education, so there is still much work to be done.
Through a recent initiative organized by the ACS Green Chemistry Institute (GCI), we have been working on the development of two green and sustainable chemistry (GSC) modules for general chemistry that address concepts related to equilibrium reactions. Our partnership as “module developers” is a perfect example of facilitated collaboration; we didn’t know each other before being chosen and paired for this project by the ACS GCI, yet our teaching philosophies and passion for helping students contextualize the concepts they’re learning are remarkably similar. Our work on these GSC modules has encouraged us to exploit the most creative aspects of our individual pedagogical approaches with the assurance that we are not working in isolation. Beyond our partnership, we have 30+ fellow GSC module developers and the ACS GCI working in concert with us. Having this extended community of like-minded innovators is inspiring!
Though our work on the GSC modules is still in the early stages, it’s exciting to see them starting to take shape. While learning about equilibria, students will make strong connections between fundamental chemical concepts and broader systems such as the nitrogen cycle and global issues of critical importance like food insecurity and clean water. Our goal is that the completed modules will help other educators feel empowered to make changes by providing models they can follow in their own teaching. Beyond the detailed guidance included in the modules, educators will also be able to reach out to us as the authors as well as the broader community assembled by the ACS GCI. Hopefully, by making these connections, we will eventually see a true “greening” of undergraduate education in chemistry. Stay tuned!