Villanova University’s Marta Guron, PhD, wants her first-year inorganic chemistry lab students to know what happens to chemical waste when it leaves the laboratory and how to minimize the impact of that waste.
“Traditionally in higher education there’s been very little emphasis on chemistry’s effect on the environment, especially in the lab setting,” Guron, an assistant professor, says. “Someone takes the waste away and students never see it again. They don’t usually think about it.”
So, in teaching her fall 2014 inorganic chemistry lab, Guron introduced a new curriculum to present novel ideas in research and emphasize sustainability. “There aren’t a lot of people doing this in their chemistry labs,” she says. “We want to create the culture now as opposed to changing the culture later.”
The most significant curricular changes were to introduce students—on day one—to safety in the lab and life-cycle thinking, include a new sustainability section to the lab reports that students write after each lab class, and have students do an experiment in which they choose a chemical reagent or technique and replace it with one that is less toxic or safer. “Students can change any aspect of the experimental procedure to address an environmental or personal safety concern, says Guron. “If a chemical is safer for humans to use, it is also safer for the environment.”
The new experiments call for more critical thinking and have more advanced techniques and instrumentation than previous experiments where students often followed a “recipe”.
Guron and colleague Jared J. Paul, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, have each taught sessions of the “green course” for the past two academic years. At the beginning and end of each course, Guron and Paul surveyed their students on their knowledge of and attitude towards several aspects of sustainability ideas and chemistry. They compared the survey results and published their findings in the Journal of Chemical Education. Here is a link to the article: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00281
“Our study clearly indicated that student outcomes were enhanced, not inhibited, by introducing a sustainability lens into the laboratory,” said Guron.
Students came out of the semester reporting a greater knowledge of how to change chemical procedures to make them more environmentally friendly, as well as an increased awareness of personal safety and waste designations. Students became much more aware of where their chemical waste was going.
“One of our goals is always to create future research chemists,” Guron says. “And seeing sustainability as an important consideration in research early on will help inform their research decisions in the future. These students are the people who will be making those decisions.”
Guron notes there are only a few people in the organic chemistry field teaching higher-level students sustainability and that there is not a lot of precedence of it happening so early in their academic careers. “The push in academia is always about curriculum, but we have to make time for curriculum and sustainability.”
The course includes guest speaker Alice Lenthe, director of Environmental Health & Safety at the University, whose background is in chemical industrial waste. “Among other things, she teaches them how their lab work may affect aquatic life and the environment,” says Guron.
“Sustainability is not a buzz word,” says Paul. “We are living in a time where we need to seriously consider the impacts of what we do. The cheapest way of carrying out an experiment or making a new compound is not necessarily the safest way or the most environmentally friendly way, and that is going to be very important going forward. We only have one earth, and we need to take care of it. It is imperative that we train our students to think about all of the impacts, not just how to carry out experiments.”
Guron and Paul will continue to survey their first-year students for the next few years, and will follow up with them their senior year to see how sustainability has influenced their other coursework.