Is chemistry teaching stuck – and is that bad for the environment?

When you are 7, there is little more horrifying than getting left in a group of unfamiliar children, all of whom are much older than you. In the depths of a hotel in Cairns, in Australia’s tropics, a girl is experiencing this nightmare at a holiday workshop.

The rest of the tween and early teenaged kids are learning how to make plastic without the plastic. They’re investigating alginate, a biodegradable substance extracted from seaweed. It can work as a gel, a waterproof casing, or even an edible jelly. It’s a prime example of green chemistry: a material that is inherently sustainable, as well as good as its job.

It’s also a lot of fun to play with. The students are making jelly-like balls of juice, milk, and other substances with their alginate.

The chemists coordinating the workshop are part of the ARC Training Centre for Green Chemistry in Manufacturing. They’ve developed a green chemistry outreach program for students in years 6–9: they take the alginate activity into schools, and provide teachers with equipment and instructions for two other activities teachers can run on their own.

Three beakers containing orange juice, milk, and water + dye
Ingredients ready to be turned into alginate structures. Credit: Ellen Phiddian

The 7 year old is not quite in the intended age range for the workshop, but Tessa Faulks, a PhD student at Monash University, takes on the task of encouraging her. By the end of the workshop, with a big grin on her face, the girl is making alginate balls and worms as enthusiastically as her older peers.

“That’s what we’re trying to create,” Faulks tells Cosmos later. “I remember the first time I ever did science […] hopefully this is her image.”

The chemists who developed this workshop have an ambitious goal in mind.

“Chemistry has a bit of an image problem,” says Zoe Gardner, a PhD student at Flinders University, and another of the workshop developers. “People think of chemistry, and they think of toxicity. We want to bridge that gap and help people understand that chemistry can be green.”

It’s a sentiment echoed across the First Australian Conference on Green and Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, where the workshop was being run. To solve environmental problems with chemistry, you need to teach chemists about the environment – and the negative effects of their practices.

And, surprisingly, this isn’t the way chemistry is taught.

“People not in chemistry wouldn’t ever think that this is possible,” Dr John Warner, one of the pioneers of green chemistry, tells Cosmos. “You can graduate with a degree in chemistry, and go work in industry, and invent products that people want to put on their body, and you’ll never have any training on how to anticipate the negative impacts.”

It’s Warner’s belief, and that of many other green chemists, that this isn’t just a problem for sustainability. In fact, the way we teach chemistry has become strangely static: from school all the way to university, chemistry students are not being taught what modern chemistry is really like.

“I’ve been teaching for a couple of years in lower socio-economic areas,” says workshop developer Adele Mastroyannis, a PhD student at Flinders. “And one of the things that really, really bothers me is that we’re expected to teach the same thing by the book, and the students just don’t make any connection between the complexity of what they’re expected to learn, and their real life.”

Titration, an experiment that finds the concentration of a substance, is one example. Titrations are a central part of high school and undergraduate chemistry curricula all over the world – the Royal Australian Chemical Institute even runs a national titration competition for really enthusiastic school students.

But plenty of students aren’t thrilled about titration, and they bemoan it even more if they discover that they’ll never need it again.

Barring a few niche applications like winemaking, hardly any professional chemist has used titration in decades. They have faster and more accurate ways to find concentrations now. There are undoubtedly still educational advantages to titration: it teaches some key chemical concepts and good lab practices. But it’s strange that there’s so much emphasis on a process that’s become very uncommon.

“If you look at a biology textbook from 1980, and a biology textbook today, it’s an entirely different textbook,” says Warner. “If you look at chemistry, it’s hard to find any difference. The field has evolved. But the way we teach hasn’t.”

Associate Professor Kieran Lim, a retired researcher in chemistry education, isn’t so sure.

“I actually have my chemistry textbook from 1980. Most of the content is the same, [but] I believe that’s because of the nature of first-year undergraduate chemistry. It has to lay a broad foundation, it has to go through all the general principles.”

Lim, who wasn’t at the conference, believes that chemistry textbooks have changed when it comes to applications of these principles.

“There’s links to environmental applications, there’s links to social responsibilities. That’s the bit that has changed in first-year teaching.”

And what of the rest of chemistry education?

“There’s a big divide between what’s happening at primary and secondary level in Australia, and what’s happening at tertiary level,” says Lim.

At school levels, like other subjects, chemistry is directed by the Australian Curriculum, which has been developed over the past 15 years. A central strand of the national curriculum is Science as a Human Endeavour: examining how science influences and is influenced by the society it’s in.

“This is where sustainable and responsible practice is embedded in the curriculum,” says Lim. “It starts all the way back in Year 1. But ‘green chemistry’ is never mentioned in there.”

While many of the concepts of green chemistry are explored at school, green chemistry as a specific practice doesn’t appear. And nor does it need to, contends Lim: “green chemistry” is a US initiative, and other countries and cultures have approached it differently.

“The words ‘green chemistry’ themselves have value that’s very English-speaking centric, and very Western-centric,” he says. “In Western society, we associate the colour green with the environment, whereas in many Asian cultures, for example, the colour green is linked with corruption – in the sense of something rotting.”

Universities, setting their own curricula, have a much more scattered approach to chemistry education – and the presence of green, or sustainable, chemistry.

Polystyrene foam
A mail-out activity for schools: comparing biodegradable foam with polystyrene. Credit: Ellen Phiddian

The Royal Australian Chemical Institute demands that universities teach social and environmental aspects of chemistry in order to get its accreditation – but not every university wants accreditation.

Plus, it costs money to change university curricula. For instance, changing chemistry labs to operate with microscale amounts of substances (like Deakin did in the 1990s) is cheaper and less wasteful. But it’s expensive to change all your lab equipment to deal with the miniscule measurements. And the bigger and more expensive your lab in the first place, the costlier it will be to change.

“The cost is going to be much more for the Group of Eight universities, because they have much larger first year classes,” says Lim.

Nevertheless, the chemists believe things are changing – both in Australia, and in the rest of the world.

“I am optimistic, as the next generation are becoming faculty,” says Warner. The not-for-profit Beyond Benign, which Warner founded with his wife Dr Amy Cannon, has been helping universities to share their green chemistry curricula. The American Chemical Society’s own accreditation program has just introduced Warner’s 12 principles of green chemistry as part of their requirements.

“When I was an early career academic, lab safety was a topic,” says Lim. “It was seen as something new that we had to think about. And nowadays, it’s just taken for granted that this is something we have to do.

“That, I think, is the ultimate goal of sustainable chemistry: that no one even discusses it. It’s just taken for granted.”

Whether you’re calling it green, sustainable, or something else, this seems to be a common goal.

“This just has to be the way that chemistry is done – all chemistry,” summarises Gardner.

Ellen Phiddian’s airfare to Cairns was paid by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, which managed the First Australian Conference on Green and Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

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