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Design Thinking: Chemistry education, green chemistry and social/environmental justice

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Ed Brush, Professor of Chemistry, Bridgewater State University,, @GreenChemEd

In preparing a symposium proposal on green chemistry and social/environmental justice (#GCSEJ) for the 2017 Green Chemistry & Engineering (GC&E) Conference, I had to address what I saw as the “practice gaps” that would be addressed. In assessing the outcomes following our #GCSEJ symposium at the 2016 conference, I feel that a gap exists between connecting the promise and potential of green chemistry in achieving social and environmental justice, and our ability to define, identify and understand the issues. Chemistry plays an essential role in our everyday lives, but there have admittedly been unintended consequences contributing, in some cases, to disproportionate exposure to hazardous chemicals based on race and socio-economic status. Although real-world examples are readily available — such as exposure to diesel particulates in inner cities, the Flint, Mich. lead crisis, and hazardous mining practices for “endangered elements” in Africa — science educators sometimes struggle to make effective connections in the context of social and environmental justice. Furthermore, when educators are challenged to integrate new material into their courses and curriculum, the most common responses are that “we don’t have the material or enough time, or lack the professional development resources to do so.”

But the conversations during and following the 2016 Portland GC&E Conference were different. There was engagement across disciplines, very strong enthusiasm for integrating #GCSEJ in chemistry education, and an equally strong desire to overcome challenges through design thinking (#DesignThinking). Many of us share the dilemma that the topics of social and environmental justice are outside our comfort zones. Rarely were we challenged to make these connections in our undergraduate or graduate training, and today we lack the access to relevant materials and resources necessary to engage our students. Our work is more objective. We have received extensive technical and theoretical training in laboratory research, but often missed out on examining the societal context of our research. I have found it helpful to reach out to my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences who are better trained to guide their students in processing the human experience, and through academic research, make connections on the impact human activities have had on our world — and will continue to have in the future.

We need to generate new curriculum ideas that include multidisciplinary input and that will engage instructor and student in creating educational resources that are openly accessible. The challenges of generating and developing these ideas will be explored through symposia at two upcoming conferences. At ACS San Francisco (April 2017) there will be a #GCSEJ session that is part of the “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice” symposium. We are also looking for speakers and participants for a multidisciplinary symposium at the 21st Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Reston, Va. in June 2017. The goal of these symposia is to better define, identify and understand the societal issues and design connections to green chemistry. This will be accomplished through: (1) sharing knowledge and experiences across disciplines and fields; (2) discussing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; and (3) learning about educational strategies and resources. A potential outcome of these conversations is to place chemistry in a more meaningful, relevant and accessible context that better connects scientists, non-scientists, students, teachers, thought leaders, policy-makers, business leaders, and community organizers with green chemistry in transdisciplinary teams that help form solutions to correct social and environmental disparities.

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