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Riding the Wave in Green Chemistry Education

Valued Contributor III
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Contributed by Jane E. Wissinger, Professor and Organic Lab Director at the University of Minnesota

Since introducing the first green experiment into my organic chemistry laboratory curriculum ten years ago, it has been a personally and professionally exhilarating ride. From the beginning, the response from students was overwhelmingly positive with 93% affirming they “valued the inclusion of green chemistry in the curriculum.” Moreover, undergraduate students and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) were inspired by the topic and began inquiring about research opportunities in my jane.jpglaboratories, how they could learn more about green chemistry, or how they could contribute to the field.

The wave has swelled, and today my curriculum includes a line-up of experiments which exemplify greener alternatives for each element of a reaction—renewable starting materials, greener solvents, use of catalysts, minimal energy requirements, benign products, and by-products—while still teaching the techniques, instrumental analyzes, and problem-solving skills targeted in laboratory learning outcomes. Many of these curriculum materials are the product of my undergraduates and GTA researchers.  In developing green experiments they gained knowledge of the field, translated research publications into simple, scalable procedures and, in some cases, made new discoveries. Even more compelling was the opportunity for the curriculum developers to share in the nervousness and excitement of seeing their protocols performed by hundreds of other students. These first implementation days were both memorable and “win-win.” Students in the class were excited to be part of a new project and a greener, safer approach to chemistry. The “inventor” was invested in seeing the experiment succeed and was proud of his or her accomplishments and the potential impact on the diverse population of students in the class.

One of the first green experiments published from our laboratories involved improving upon an “old” transformation commonly used in teaching laboratories—the oxidation of borneol to camphor. A graduate student was interested in pursuing a teaching career and passionate about gaining experience in green methodologies. The outcome of his research is an experiment based on literature precedent for the oxidation of secondary alcohols to ketones using Oxone and a catalyst. Our innovations include using a two-phase system of ethyl acetate and water and using the benign catalyst, sodium chloride, to replace “fancier” catalysts such as IBX. We have been thrilled to see this experiment adopted by many other teaching laboratories and included in a popular organic chemistry laboratory textbook.

As another example, a novel experiment based on state-of-the art sustainable polymer technologies was developed by a first year graduate student entering the field. This work, funded by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency grant and the NSF CCI Center for Sustainable Polymers, represents modern approaches to synthesizing  block copolymers using renewable monomers with design for degradation. The current inquiry-based experiment used in my course was the result of contributions from five different undergraduates/graduate students, and collaboration with a professor from a small neighboring liberal arts college. For me, sharing potential solutions to today’s plastics through this extended network of researchers/future scientists and the thousands of students enrolled in the introductory organic laboratory course satisfies my goals of demonstrating the power of green chemistry in addressing a compelling and relevant societal problem.

For those of you yet to incorporate green chemistry, I encourage you to “catch the wave.” In the last 20 years, a portfolio of publications has now made it possible to find a green replacement experiment for almost every type of reaction commonly used in the (organic) chemistry laboratory curriculum. Your students will appreciate being taught modern science centered on sustainable practices, the field of chemistry will be portrayed in a positive, relevant, and innovative light to the non-majors, and chemistry majors will be prepared to meet the needs of industrial employers eager to hire students trained in green chemistry principles.

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