Creating Green & Sustainable Chemistry Education Modules: Q&A with Profs. Marta Guron and Lihua Wang

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This January, a group of motivated educators from across the U.S. and Canada began the process of creating education modules to integrate green and sustainable chemistry (GSC) into general and organic chemistry topics. The effort is part of the ACS GCI Educational Module Development Project—a three-year project aimed at providing the resources and training for undergraduate educators to accelerate the adoption of GSC in the classroom. Fifteen teams have been formed to work on over 30 modules covering topics like equilibrium, electrochemistry, chirality, and synthetic design from a green chemistry and systems thinking perspective. We checked in with one team—Prof. Marta Guron of Villanova University and Prof. Lihua Wang of Kettering University—to hear their vision for and experience with the project thus far.

Marta Guron, Ph.D., Villanova UniversityMarta Guron, Ph.D., Villanova University

Q: What drew you to be part of the Module Development Project?

Guron: I joined this project because I have a deep commitment to sustainability and have already made substantial changes to existing courses and developed new coursework with an eye toward sustainability.  Because of my experience and interest, it seemed a natural fit, and an opportunity to help other chemists envision how incorporating sustainability into a General Chemistry curriculum can be done.  Too often I’ve heard from colleagues that there’s already so much content it’s hard to add anything. However, with the right balance of background information and chemical content, the program can be quite successful.  I believe it’s important because sustainability is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and because innovation in the classroom can help provide context and accountability to students as they conceptualize how somewhat abstract chemistry ideas relate to modern-day issues.

Wang: I was interested in participating in this project because I believe that it is important that science and engineering students learn the principles of, and develop a mindset for, green and sustainable chemistry and systems thinking. In doing so, they will develop into professionals that not only care about protecting the environment and conserving natural resources, but are also equipped with the general principles and tools to guide their actions in their future careers.  For example, they will be able to consider the complete life cycle and broader environmental and societal impact of a product or process that they may design in the future, and make intentional efforts to minimize the negative impact of the product or process while maximizing its benefits.

Lihua Wang, Ph.D., Kettering UniversityLihua Wang, Ph.D., Kettering University

Furthermore, it is important that we demonstrate to the students that GSC is not a separate branch of chemistry but a mindset and a set of principles that we should apply when we practice chemistry.  Therefore, GSC needs to be incorporated throughout the chemistry curriculum starting from the very beginning.


Q: What have you found challenging and what have you found rewarding working on this project so far?

Guron: The one thing that has been a bit challenging has been the introduction of vocabulary specific to particular pedagogical systems. While I have used these ideas before, the jargon can sometimes cloud the focus of the overall goal, so it’s a matter of becoming accustomed to it. I deeply enjoy working in teams, as there is no way I would have connected with my teammates for any other reason because we are scattered all over the U.S. and Canada. The networking and exchange of ideas brings a community to curriculum development, which can sometimes be a lonely endeavor. I find my teammates can bring new eyes to an idea that made sense to me in my head but that sometimes I struggle to articulate.  Having the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another has only strengthened the modules we are developing. In particular, Lihua excels in finding gaps in my work that I inadvertently autocompleted in my head, and I believe our natural trust of one another's skills and expertise has led to such a productive and meaningful partnership.

Wang: The systems that relate to a chemical compound or process through the lens of green and sustainable chemistry are usually complex and interdisciplinary.  It is impossible to teach general chemistry students the details of all the systems. So the greatest challenge so far in working on the project is to decide on the scope and the level of information to cover/include to achieve the goal of demonstrating the principles of GSC and systems thinking without overwhelming the students and losing the focus of teaching the fundamentals of chemistry. 

I really enjoy working on this chemistry curriculum development project. Not only is the work very important, it provides an opportunity to work with and exchange ideas with chemistry educators from different colleges and universities. Furthermore, it has helped to expand my own knowledge and understanding of green and sustainable chemistry, and the systems thinking approach.  I really enjoy working with Marta, my teammate. We established a very good process for our collaboration at the beginning. We work very well with each other and are able to get things done efficiently. As a result, our module is progressing ahead of schedule.  

Q: What is your hope for the future of chemistry education?

Guron: My hope for the future of chemistry education is to create a more level playing field, considering not only environmental sustainability, but also our responsibilities to other global citizens, while erasing divisions among disciplines and creating a more interdisciplinary approach.

Wang: I hope that the idea of incorporating GSC into the chemistry curriculum using a systems thinking approach will be widely adopted by the chemical education community. This will enhance awareness among both chemistry and non-chemistry students as to the central and essential roles of chemistry in sustainable development. It will also cultivate their capabilities of applying the GSC principles and systems thinking approach to their future careers.