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Greening the ACS Student Chapter at Gordon College

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Irvin J. Levy, Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair, Gordon College.

Green Chemistry Principle #9 – Catalysis. As I look at the adventure that I have had over the past 25 years mentoring the ACS student chapter at Gordon College, either actively or in support roles, it is interesting to me to reflect on the many ways that green chemistry engagement has been a catalyst. Chartered by ACS in 1990, the chapter at Gordon College, in Wenham, MA, like many other student chapters, has seen times of great involvement and times of dormancy. Integration of green chemistry advocacy, though, transformed the past six years into the chapter’s most successful years.

Green chemistry has been an important focus on our campus since 2003. Our initial interest was prompted by a student who was adamant that we should learn more about the idea, which was still rather novel to those of us in the teaching trenches in the early years of the new millennium. Through her catalytic efforts that one student had a profound impact on our department, our faculty, and our students.

Now, our student chapter is an intentional catalyst, bringing information to others about green chemistry and encouraging those in the academic world to adopt it into their lecture, labs, research, and – yes – other student chapters of the ACS.

David Constable.pngSo, how do you become a catalyst? What can your chapter do to engage your students and provide an outreach to others? Well, the first part of that answer depends a lot on your chapter. You have to seek out activities that will be fun for you to organize and fun for the community that you want to reach. And the second part of the answer depends a lot on how experimental you feel. After all, we’re chemists! Experiment with ideas… try activities on your own… try sharing them with a group… and don’t worry too much whether you have a stellar success the first time out. Part of the nature of a chemist is to gather more data and refine the solution. You can do that with your chapter, too.

And you won’t be alone.

The concept of green chemistry is attractive to a lot of people. Folks who would profess no interest in “chemistry” suddenly become interested when you explain that green chemistry uses principles that allow us to get the benefits of chemistry but in ways that are designed to be safer for human health and the environment. Often, this “elevator speech” about green chemistry is enough to elicit a “tell me more” response. And then, off you go. We have found partners for our chapter in lots of places – and you will, too. Some examples:

  • Students from other majors who are interested in sustainability
  • Faculty in your department who are engaged in green chemistry or sustainability
  • Your student chapter advisor, who might not be engaged in green chemistry but who might become engaged if you spark her or his interest, you catalyst, you!

And once you’ve got a core of people to get the ball rolling, there are lots of resources available to you.  For example,

  • Other student chapters from nearby schools – check the ACS website for a full listing of the chapters that received the Green Chemistry Award in recent years
  • Look for advice from potential mentors at other colleges and universities – the Green Chemistry Commitment is one spot to find a list of institutions that might be willing to assist your chapter from a distance
  • Resources from ACS GCI, Beyond Benign, GEMs database, and others … you will find many sources of possible activities

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About that “core of people to get the ball rolling” … it doesn’t matter whether you are coming from a small, medium, large, or huge institution. You will probably find that there are a handful of people who are the most involved in your chapter. You simply need to hit that sustainable catalytic concentration of willing folks and you’re ready to get moving. There are many ways this can be done. Again, a lot depends on your interests and your willingness to try something new for the first time. Here are some ideas that have worked for us:

  • Invite guest lecturers to come to your campus to talk about green chemistry. If you follow this path be sure to work hard to get a wide audience. For example, you might invite education majors, business majors, local high school teachers, community environmental club members, etc. in addition to other students and faculty in your department.
  • Schedule visits to a nearby business or academic institution where green chemistry is happening. One way to discover them is by glancing at recent recipients of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (PGCCA).
  • Teach others about green chemistry through public display areas. For example, a display board that creatively explains two of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry for a semester, followed by another two principles the next semester. Every three years you could cover all of the principles. As another example, highlight the success of some of the most recent winners of the PGCCA – you could showcase half of the new winners in the fall and the other half in the spring.
  • Ask your faculty mentor or department chair how your chapter can use a green chemistry message to be of service to the department. For example, ask to have some time to explain green chemistry to visiting prospective students or have a green chemistry evening (with food of course!) with your new students each fall.

Honestly, the only limitation is your creativity and your willingness to try new activities, combined with your willingness to reach out to others for guidance and for time to brainstorm with you. And by all means, don’t try to just do what the chapter did last year. Make it fresh and your own every year. These are the critical tools you will need to be a catalyst and to make your green chapter activity uniquely your own.

As one of our current student chapter officers, Logan Walsh, said to me, “The key is to be creative and have fun. I love practicing Green Chemistry in our chapter because it is a real way young people can make a difference in the world today!”


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