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Getting Community College Students into the Lab with Green Chemistry

Honored Contributor
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During the GC&E conference in June, we had a chance to catch up with Rick Glover, a chemistry teacher at Bellevue College in Washington State. In an interview, he discussed how he gets community college students into the lab and engaged in real-world sustainability challenges.

Q: How were you introduced to green chemistry?

A: I started off my academic career as an environmental scientist, and I saw that the regulation of pollutants worked sort of like a snake eating its tail. If we just try to regulate, monitor and pull out harmful chemicals as we find them in the environment, we’re inherently missing the opportunity to design safer chemicals. Using that approach, we’ll never be able to catch up to all the problems created.  I wanted to get on the front end of that, and it’s what drove me toward green chemistry. I wanted to better understand the materials we produce and their impacts on and fate in the environment.

There have been a couple of talks at the GC&E conference on persistent organic pollutants, and the problems we face on trying to clean those out of our water are pretty crazy. In my opinion, approaches to these problems have to be more holistic.

A lot of my work at my community college has pivoted toward getting students I teach into the lab, rather than on research I started previously. I’ve tried to address questions like, how do you get students to understand the real processes involved in science? And, how do you get students to really gain an understanding of where chemicals will end up in the environment?


Q: What have you found most beneficial in getting students involved in green chemistry?

A: It’s great to get students involved through topics that they’ve either seen in the media or can relate to in their everyday lives. For one of our projects last term, some students were trying to find micro-plastics in sea salts. There was an ACS paper that came out last November that discussed finding these plastics, so it was captivating for the students. They could look at the same roadblocks discussed in the paper and say, okay, we think we’ve found these but how can we reasonably assess that this is what we’ve found? There was another student whose family eats a lot of rice, and she was using the ICP-MS to analyze the amounts of arsenic in different commercially available rice products since rice is one of those products that happens to bio-accumulate arsenic. So it’s really beneficial to get projects that students are interested in and that affect their daily lives.

Another project that a student has run with is around the effects of neonicotinoids on honey bee populations, which is a huge and broad topic. I’ve been really excited about his progress. He took this project initially thinking he could address many parts of this issue, but he’s realizing that much of science is addressing in incremental steps what you can do to help solve a larger problem. Learning to isolate something out of an environmental matrix is very difficult, but instead of shying away from this challenge he’s volunteering to come back this summer to continue to work on this project. It has led him to work on developing new research-based undergraduate labs so that a broader swath of the undergraduates can experience what real research is rather than “cookbook” chemistry.

Q: When you have students looking at these environmental impacts do you discuss preventing these problems and designing to avoid them?

A: Not as much of that comes on the research side, but rather on the teaching side. We discuss, for example, some of the problems in our region around Puget Sound. One of the big issues is ocean acidification and its impact on the local shellfisheries. A discussion we always have is, okay, why do we have this problem? Well, one of the obvious answers is that we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Then we move to, okay, if we’re not burning fossil fuels then from where are we going to get the energy? We discuss CO2 being in a thermodynamic sink and needing some way to get out of there. It’s nice to be able to show students that it requires a fundamental chemical understanding of these problems to solve them.

Q: How do you think incorporating green chemistry into a community college is different than in a four-year college?

A: The amount of time that I have to do research is minimal. It’s not really built into my load, so I’ve developed a class that allows me to teach research to undergraduate students. It’s open-access, so anybody can come into that class. It’s different from the model of hand-picking students for research because I’ve found that sometimes students who don’t excel at coursework do excel at research. Because there’s no right answer, it’s not always the book-smart students who are the best researchers. We hope they build the ability to address the question: what can be done with both good and bad data? Sometimes we sacrifice the time it takes to get research results in exchange for the ability to teach students about a method.

Q: Do you have any input on the conference so far? What brought you here?

A: The conference has been really exciting. I’m looking forward to the educational talks to help me bring in new labs and concepts into my teaching. I spent some time this morning in the carbon dioxide catalysis session because it’s something I’ve been interested in, so it’s really cool that there are so many different topics we can learn about here as well as reinforcing the mainstays of green chemistry.

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