To shift our society and economy in a truly sustainable direction, we need to teach the next generation of chemists and chemical engineers to practice Green Chemistry. Of course, the ultimate goal is that the very notion of “Green Chemistry” should disappear – “greenness”, or environment and health qualities, should be assumed in everything we create, not included as an afterthought.
But we are a long way from this future. Traditional chemistry, as it is now predominantly taught, does not provide chemists the skills they need to make the products and processes which will substitute for the current hazardous economy. Thus the way we teach students about chemicals, molecular design, risk and the intrinsic nature of things needs to be shifted to include Green Chemistry principles at its core. To move in this direction we need to start at the beginning, by questioning the qualities we want chemicals – and chemistry education – to have.
To teach using the principles of green chemistry is especially important in undergraduate chemistry laboratory classes. In these classes, students learn the techniques and protocol that they will take with them to their own labs or industry. Hence, it is essential that we train our future chemists using green chemistry methods and ideals. The University of California at Berkeley recently opened a Center for Green Chemistry. They shared a few of their undergraduate lab protocols, before and after the principles of green chemistry were applied to them, with AGC. Here is our analysis of the change in the Berkeley protocol.
Today’s chemistry student is never required to take a toxicology course, nor yet a biology course. Traditional chemistry is practiced in a universe (the lab) which is assumed to be contained. Students learn a set of basic chemistry principles and procedures, and learn to build molecules. But they are never taught to question the nature of the inputs they use (petroleum-based feed stocks versus renewable, or bio-based), nor to question the utility of employing waste-generating processes to make things. They are not taught to ask about the ultimate nature of the thing produced (Is it biologically active? Does it bio-accumulate or bio-persist? What happens to the substance when discarded?). All of these broader contextual issues are at the heart of Green Chemistry. And this is how chemistry should be taught.
There are innovators who now teach this way, and their number grows each year, as evidenced at annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conferences. Leading U.S. chemistry institutions include:
** Find out what schools in Minnesota are doing to teach Green Chemistry (Minnesota Public Radio).
** In Canada, Ontario is working with the Council of Ontario Universities to appoint two chairs in green chemistry. The province has committed $500,000 annually for five years to the program. Also, the province has invested $13.6 million in GreenCentre Canada, located at Queen’s University. The centre will connect green chemistry discoveries in Ontario universities with companies to develop alternatives to toxic chemicals and get them to the marketplace faster.