Exploring the Intersection of Effective Pedagogies and Green and Sustainable Chemistry Education

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By Aurora Ginzburg, Ph.D., Chemistry Education Program Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

I recently read the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine consensus report, How People Learn II (HPL2), and was struck by the many potential opportunities for education in green and sustainable chemistry to address the report’s findings on improving learning outcomes. Some of these opportunities are summarized below.

The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry put forward by Anastas and Warner, and subsequent green chemistry design principles suggested by others over the years, form a common basis of green chemistry thinking. Green and sustainable chemistry (GSC) encompasses these design principles, and broadens the lens to also include:  life cycle considerations, chemistry impacts over time (e.g., over periods of years, decades, centuries) and across geography (e.g., local and global considerations), and should weave in social and economic issues.  By learning about the practice of GSC, students can recognize the power of chemistry to both create and solve societal problems.

Some of these findings are direct quotes, others I have summarized and combined from multiple sections.

  • HPL2 finding (pg. 29): The brain’s processing of emotional and social stimuli influences the development of brain networks. Brain networks supporting emotion, learning and memory are intricately intertwined, even for technical disciplines. People will work harder to learn content and skills they are emotional about, particularly if they’re connected to future goals.

    GSC opportunity: Teaching chemistry as a discipline for problem-solvers, whereby learners are being equipped to help address major evocative sustainability challenges, can motivate them to work harder to learn difficult content and skills. This idea is supported by research from Jackson et al. who found that underrepresented minority college students are more likely than others to lose motivation in pursuing science-related professions if they do not believe the career will help give back to their communities in some way.
  • HPL2 finding (pg. 70): People orchestrate their own learning through metacognition, executive function and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the interplay of the will to invest in learning, curiosity and a willingness to explore what one does not know. People need to see themselves as learners and thinkers to be most successful (i.e., using a metacognitive approach).

    GSC opportunity: Infusing chemistry curricula with systems thinking approaches provides a robust reason for students to reflect on why they are learning these skills. Systems thinking skills benefit students far beyond the chemistry classroom and aid students in identifying interdisciplinary connections that benefit them both academically (including in their other courses) and eventually in their careers as they can better anticipate the impact of their work.
  • HPL2 finding (pg. 5): Conscious learning requires sustained effort, people have to want to learn and see the value in it. Some studies suggest that task valuation is the strongest predictor of behaviors associated with motivation.

    GSC opportunity: The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a list of the world’s problems in need of solving. Within the U.N. SDGs there are numerous areas in need of chemical innovation. If foundational chemistry content is taught using the U.N. SDGs for context and motivation, learners can see the value in chemistry beyond filling a course requirement. Moreover, because the U.N. SDGs are so broad, students with nearly any career goal can envision how their education can equip them to better address the SDG targets most motivating to them.
  • HPL2 finding (pg. 145):  Motivation to learn is influenced by whether or not students see a learning environment as a place where they belong.

    GSC opportunity: GSC provides a chance for chemistry to be taught more inclusively and broaden participation. By bringing in, for example, issues of environmental and social justice, or human health chemical impacts into the classroom, chemistry can be seen as an avenue for a culturally connected career. Chemical design challenges can be presented as a way of empowering students to benefit their community and the broader society through the practice of chemistry. For example, students may have family members that are farmworkers. Farmworkers have disproportionately larger adverse health outcomes linked to their exposure to crop protection agents. Chemists can develop the knowledge and skillset to innovate and design greener crop protection agents.

    It is important to note that instilling a sense of belonging to students from all backgrounds and identities extends far beyond bringing GSC into the classroom. Major systemic obstacles exist for underrepresented groups to feel a sense of belonging.  These obstacles include issues such as a lack of diverse role models, inadequate financial support, and mentors who aren’t trained to address cultural and gender concerns. While GSC can’t directly address these issues, it is encouraging that Gulacar et al. recently found that incorporating socio-scientific issues into the chemistry curriculum increased motivation for some ethnic groups to learn chemistry.
  • HPL2 finding (pg. 296):  For deep learning to occur, skills and knowledge must extend beyond a narrow context in which they may be initially learned.

    GSC opportunity: Traditionally, students practice solving chemistry problems that have very little relevance to modern industrial chemistry or other chemistry-dependent areas of study. Instead, if students use foundational chemistry knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to practice solving chemistry problems that address a grand sustainability challenge (e.g., developing modern medicines, feeding the world, producing chemicals responsibly), the context is broadened such that deeper learning can occur. For example, a chemistry problem involving the design of a less persistent molecule for water-proof textile finishing would require integrating ideas such as bond strength, solubility, and functional group reactivity.
  • HPL2 finding (pg. 55)Different pedagogical strategies promote different types of learning; promoting memory for specific facts requires different learning experiences than promoting knowledge that is transferable to a new situation. To develop the latter, students have to compare and contrast multiple instances of concepts, reflect on why a phenomenon is or is not found and spend time developing models. Research on memory shows that repeated opportunities to retrieve facts over time, location and learning contexts are much more effective than rote fact learning. Placing facts in a rich structure makes them easier to remember.

    GSC opportunity: Related to the prior finding on deep learning, using a GSC lens for motivating and practicing chemistry provides ample opportunities for educators to help students tie together chemistry topics spanning multiple chapters or courses. In addition, when relating specific chemical properties to a given function, students are integrating concepts and reflecting on why a phenomenon is important for achieving a specific performance. This can apply to a range of contexts such as drugs that target a specific active site, hazardous chemicals that are transported through the food chain, or metal properties that aid catalyst performance.

The findings from this report, while not specific to chemistry, are supported in part by recent findings on effective chemistry education.  For further reading, check out Gulacar’s 2020 study on socio-scientific issues in general chemistry, Mutambuki’s 2020 study relating metacognition to general chemistry performance, Kolopajlo’s 2017 chapter on green chemistry pedagogy, and Tekkumru‐Kisa’s framework for analyzing science tasks and instruction.