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Where Does the Green Go?

Valued Contributor II
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Contributed by Thomas P. Umile, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Gwynedd Mercy University

This summer, I decided to incorporate a hefty dose of green chemistry and sustainability (GCS) in my undergraduate organic chemistry course, as many other like-minded instructors have before. For even the best of us, though, revising a course is no trivial task. Many logistical and administrative challenges exist, unique to one’s own department and institution. However, one question remains that all face: “With a fundamental discipline as old as [Insert Your Discipline Here], wherever am I supposed to fit more content?” In effect, where does the “green” go? After much thinking*, two realizations formed the framework of the changes I would make.

1. Revise. Don’t replace. Although “adding new content” seems to imply “replacing old content,” there’s no real need to replace anything! Instead, refine what is already taught to include some reference to GCS.

2. This is not a Green Chemistry course. Students will not learn everything about GCS in this course, and instructors need only include enough information to pique students’ interests, framing traditional course material in a green context. (That’s actually how I first became interested in green chemistry in college!)


What does this look like in practice? Here are some examples of what I’m doing this year:

Green Experiments – Cheaper, cleaner experiments have replaced a number of more traditional versions. For example, rather than using volatile and corrosive Br2 for our “alkene addition” lab, we’ll generate the Br2 reagent in situ from H2O2 and HBr. Modified experiments such as this still demonstrate the basic techniques required of the curriculum, but I can now use pre-lab lectures or handouts to gently comment on how our versions are different (e.g., saving money, reducing risks).

On-line Message Boards – My course requires that students participate in a message board. Each week, students read an article and are prompted to elicit comments, generating discussion. This year the theme is Green Chemistry. We’ll start small (e.g., “What does ‘chemical-free’ really mean?”) and work our way up (e.g., “How do the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry apply to something we’ve seen in class?”). For now, we’re using the message board module in our course management system (Blackboard), but I can envision easily adapting this to other formats. Twitter?

Homemade Problem Sets – Instructor-made problem sets are a great vehicle for introducing GCS. Phrasing a traditional practice problem in a green context can be simple and effective. For example, rather than having students just practice the mechanism of an ester hydrolysis, make them draw the mechanism for hydrolysis of the compostable polyester polylactic acid (PLA). The question’s wording can subtly point out the potential benefits of PLA (e.g., closed-loop recycling), infusing the question with GCS without losing the required content.

Extra Credit & Other Assignments – Students love extra credit because it means more points. Instructors should love extra credit because it’s an opportunity to introduce additional course material. A common extra credit assignment in my organic course requires students to propose a multistep synthesis of some challenging target. This year, they will also investigate the atom economy of their proposed syntheses.

Including GCS content didn’t actually require a massive overhaul of my course, and no content was thrown away. Where did the “green” end up going? Everywhere! With only minor revisions, students will simply see “green” wherever they look this semester because Green Chemistry and Sustainability has become the backdrop for the entire course.

*Acknowledgement: Many thanks are owed to Jim Hutchison, Julie Haack, Ken Doxsee, and John Thompson, who provided invaluable insights during myriad conversations at the 2014 Green Chemistry in Education Workshop at the University of Oregon. Their advice was fundamental to my syllabus revisions.

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