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Green Chemistry at West Virginia State University

Valued Contributor III
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By Aaron Smith and Morgan Bright, Student Members of the American Chemical Society (SMACS) at WVSU; and Micheal Fultz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry, West Virginia State University

The importance of the role of chemistry throughout a sustainable society is easily identified as we progress through our collegiate education. Whether your goal upon graduation is working in the chemical industry, going to graduate school for polymer engineering or pursuing a medical career, a solid foundation of green chemistry is the key to the overall understanding of many disciplines. Knowing green chemistry’s role in a sustainable society, we can do no less as students than acknowledge our responsibility to learn about chemistry through class participation and research, and to have insight into how our education in chemistry can affect the world as a whole. Green chemistry is taking into consideration the environmental impact we make as chemists, and striving to limit any negative impact by being knowledgeable of what happens to our products and research waste following the completion of our chemistry projects.

kids.jpgIt is imperative to know the 12 principles of green chemistry developed by Paul Anastas and John Warner.  However, it is important to note that memorizing these principles is not enough. In order to create a safer and more progressive chemistry education curriculum, we must practice what we preach. A successful way to incorporate the ideals of green chemistry into undergraduate education is to begin learning the ideals in lecture and practice them in the lab. The incorporation of green chemistry techniques will not only instruct students how to be aware of potential impact, but also inspire them to continue looking for greener methods of conducting reactions as they progress through graduate programs and into the workforce. A solid foundation of green chemistry can create a cleaner, more efficient future for the scientific community as a whole.

Just as important as understanding what green chemistry is, it is important to understand what green chemistry is not. Green chemistry is not simply running a campus recycling drive or trash cleanup effort. While these activities are a positive community service and are great activities for American Chemical Society (ACS) chapters, they do not incorporate any of the ideals of green chemistry. Green chemistry attempts to create renewable and sustainable practices in order to limit the impact upon the environment. As a chapter, we believe additional  effective ways to promote green chemistry are: to incorporate it in the curriculum by performing green activities in the laboratory, encouraging faculty to lecture about the concepts of green chemistry within the classroom, hosting extracurricular seminars from university faculty or other regional institutions, and encouraging ACS chapters to creatively incorporate green chemistry into their outreach activities.

There have been many efforts at West Virginia State University (WVSU), through the Student Member of the American Chemical Society (SMACS) to educate the community on the importance of green chemistry. This has been done through science days at local elementary schools, booths around campus and other community events. The main principle being introduced to young minds is the acknowledgment that there should always be an attempt to further limit the amount of waste and environmental hazards produced in chemistry.

The principles of green chemistry can begin to be passed to a new generation of chemists. A non-exhaustive way is hosting seminars and incorporating brief, hands-on chemistry projects. Some of the most popular activities that have been completed by WVSU SMACS have been seminars on sustainability. Two activities in particular include:

  1. The use of biodegradable packing peanuts to teach the difference between cellulose and polystyrene based packing peanuts. The activity involves mixing both types of peanuts with water to create a visual reminder of how polystyrene does not break down just breaks up to create environmental hazard. This is comparison to the biodegradable packing peanuts that break down to either potato or corn starch. Oregon State University and the USDA have a fantastic handout that groups can use to incorporate the peanuts into their outreach work.
  2. The use of polylactic acid (PLA) during snack time. While the students are on break, we use this as a teachable moment. The students degrade the “plastic” cups made of PLA back into lactic acid. Creating memorable visual activities like these are key to helping future chemists and society to appreciate green chemistry’s role in our future. The University of Oregon has a fantastic laboratory written out for those who would like to know more.

The move to more sustainable methods in chemistry education has prompted former undergraduate students to help incorporate greener experiments in our organic chemistry curriculum. This was for both pedagogical, as well as, financial reasons. The incorporation of the “Solventless Aldol”  experiment at WVSU is one successful example of how students and faculty can work together to improve the curriculum at their school. The senior SMACS members helped with the original experimentation by developing a laboratory introduction and protocol that best communicates the instructions to students. This included the theory, mechanism, and introduction to what green chemistry is for all undergraduates, who may have never been introduced to green chemistry topics before. The experiment instilled the value of atom economy, less hazardous chemicals and safer solvents as compared to the traditional aldol that was in the laboratory protocol. This lab was included in the organic sequence as a comparison to a traditional aldol due to the persistence of the SMACS group helping to unite the lab protocol and background. This is an example of how green chemistry will affect generations of undergraduate students to come through the continuation of this experiment in future lab courses. This will expose many future students to the ACS, green chemistry, and give the students an idea that they can make a difference in their education and school. The “Solventless Aldol” proved to be a successful example of how ACS groups can work with their faculty to help modernize curriculum.

john-warner-text.jpgOne of the most popular ways to promote and educate on green chemistry can also be one the best, if done correctly. Hosting a green chemistry expert can have strengths and benefits if the speaker can make the need for the promotion of green chemistry education a priority for all, not just the speaker. Over the last couple of years, we have had the opportunity to host national and regional leaders in green chemistry who have all made the same appeal: building a sustainable society through chemistry is a necessity for everyone, chemists and non-chemists alike, to work on. One challenge and pitfall is the possibility that these seminars will become a one and done event. Each group needs to insure students stay engaged and continue their education and not forget what they learned at the seminar.

Our challenge to other ACS institutions is to increase the prevalence of green chemistry principles within the chemistry curriculum through lectures, labs and ACS activities. Whether it is having a group discussion in class, setting up an awareness booth on campus, or doing fun activities at local K-12 schools, increasing the awareness of green chemistry is paramount to building a cleaner future for us the world. As these ideals are instilled into a younger generation; green chemistry will become the standard in chemical techniques. This is a goal we all should work toward.

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To read other posts, go to Green Chemistry: The Nexus Blog home.