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Fostering the Next Generation of Green Chemistry Leaders Through Applied Learning

ACSGCI
Valued Contributor II
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Kimberly Hazard, Greener Solutions instructor, University of California, Berkeley

The Greener Solutions program at UC Berkeley is a unique and successful program that teaches students applied skills in green chemistry. As a former Greener Solutions student and current co-instructor, I can attest to the program’s pedagogical efficacy and the immense value it provides for students and partners.

Through the program, students have a unique opportunity to work on interdisciplinary teams and partner with companies in a variety of industries trying to identify and evaluate safer alternatives to concerning materials or less sustainable processes. Students who go through this program learn how to apply their academic skills to real sustainability challenges, and often leave inspired to shift their careers in this direction. In addition to providing students with valuable experience, the program also helps build a leadership pipeline for the next generation of sustainability.

Applied learning

The 2021 Greener Solutions class engages in a project.The 2021 Greener Solutions class engages in a project.Offered every fall semester, the Greener Solutions program brings together graduate students and advanced undergraduates with backgrounds in chemistry, engineering, and public health. Forming a cross-disciplinary team, these students apply their technical knowledge to brainstorm a more sustainable and safer solution to a real technical challenge presented by the partnering company or organization.  

As they search for safer alternatives, students gain practical experience in green chemistry and bioinspired design, along with toxicology and environmental health, communicating complex scientific ideas, and strategies to overcome institutional and policy barriers to the adoption of safer chemistries.

Students are encouraged to hold technical performance and the human and environmental health impacts of a solution on equal footing. From the 2021 cohort, one student said of the course “Often as engineers we care so much about performance, we don't consider using more sustainable methods if they mean trading off performance measures. I have realized that a less effective but also less harmful method is not always a deal-breaker now.” In this way, students are learning a systems approach to design, where environmental and health considerations are more fully explored.

Working with partners on real challenges

The key to the success of the Greener Solutions program is the willingness of partner companies to engage with the students. Over the past ten years, the program has worked with companies including HP, Levi Strauss, Seventh Generation, Autodesk, and Method, among others on a variety of challenges from safer 3D printing resins to safer UV blockers for sunscreens to biodegradable pigments for marine coatings.

This past year, four interdisciplinary student teams investigated greener alternatives to 1) 6PPD, a toxic additive used to reduce degradation in rubber tires, 2) the use of PFAS in floor polishes, 3) unsustainable plastic products, including packaging for frozen kelp, and 4) pressure-sensitive adhesives for PLU stickers which are currently not compostable. Read more about Fall 2021 challenges.

Tomorrow’s green chemistry leaders

Participating in the Greener Solutions program is valuable to students and partners alike. However, there is another important outcome with an even greater impact—building the green chemistry leadership pipeline.

Former students have extended their investigations with internships in industry, academia, or government, and have shared their findings with the broader community through writing and presentations.

Students, like myself and my colleague Dr. Billy Hart-Cooper, have also gone on to take leadership roles in the program as co-instructors. Another graduate has successfully adapted the Greener Solutions course model to undergraduate civil engineering students at the University of Victoria, B.C., demonstrating how the elements of the course can be adapted to a different subject matter and instructional level.

Former students have changed the course of their research and careers towards green chemistry because of their experience in Greener Solutions. One student from the 2021 cohort stated “The course has definitely changed my career plans. I was more interested in our class projects than my current Ph.D. research.” Another student reported, “I am now interested in careers more directly related to environmental sustainability and, if pursuing research positions, ones that incorporate chemical hazard or possibilities to do so.” A third student said, “Part of my motivation for taking this course was the desire to explore alternative career options in sustainability, and this course provided an excellent exposure to this and has made me want to consider this as a post-graduation option much more seriously.”

We hope to continue to lean on the Greener Solutions network as we explore further program expansion and offerings for undergraduate students at UC Berkeley.

Interested in becoming a partner?

Every year we tackle new challenges with new and existing partner organizations. This coming fall, we expect to examine PFAS chemicals in firefighting turnout gear and additives in bio-based plastic alternatives. If you are interested in getting involved or want to learn more, please visit our website or complete this form.