Green Chemistry in the High School Classroom

As students across Minnesota enjoyed a long weekend, some of their teachers at the Education Minnesota Professional Conference at the St. Paul RiverCentre learned how to make chemistry classrooms safer and greener.  During the October 16 workshop, educators from elementary, middle, and high schools across the state learned about the importance of green chemistry and how to teach their students about green chemistry so they will be prepared for this fast growing sector.

Making sutures
One of the teachers at the workshop tries making a suture in an experiment designed by University of Minnesota student Ming Yu.

The workshop began with an overview of green chemistry by Dr. Paul Jackson, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College, who linked his passion to pursue green chemistry in the classroom to two books: Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Both books challenged Dr. Jackson to rethink chemistry and design and look to nature for inspiration, instead of relying on conventional toxic chemicals and processes. 

“Green chemistry has 12 principles,” Jackson explained, “but I like to condense them down to 3: Rethink, Redesign, and Reimagine what is possible in science.”  Dr. Jackson used the example of the bullet trains in Japan to illustrate the power of this green chemistry philosophy.  After noticing that kingfishers do not make a splash diving into water, Japanese engineers redesigned the front of the bullet trains to mimic the bill of a kingfisher.  The result?  A 10 percent increase in speed, a 15 percent decrease in energy use, and noise reduction upon tunnel exits.

Testing Bioplastics
Uniniversity of Minnesota student Aaron Johnson demonstrates the effects of glue, sugar, glycerol, and different starches on the flexibility and strength of bioplastics.

Driven largely by consumer demand, Dr. Jackson continued, this same philosophy is beginning to filter into industry.  Companies like Target and Staples are working to reduce the toxicity and waste of their suppliers’ products, while Segetis, NatureWorks, Ecolab, and other green chemistry companies continue to develop safer, better, and more environmentally friendly products.  Dr. Jackson went on to explain that Minnesota is particularly well positioned to take advantage of the growing green chemistry industry because the state is both home to a high concentration of green chemistry companies and has the potential to become “the Saudi Arabia of biological resources.”

Given green chemistry’s potential role in Minnesota’s future economy, Dr. Amy Cannon, executive director of Beyond Benign, built on Dr. Jackson’s presentation by outlining the importance of bringing green chemistry into Minnesota’s K-12 classrooms.  Since green chemistry’s acceptance as a legitimate scientific field in the 1990’s, the field has gained popularity in universities and businesses around the globe.  American universities are gradually following. In order to prepare students for a future in green chemistry, Dr. Cannon argued that green chemistry must begin in the K-12 years.  Beyond Benign offers teachers free green chemistry curricula, replacement experiments, and professional development training to help them teach other teachers about green chemistry.  Beyond Benign also highlights green chemistry’s benefits for chemistry teachers: by using less toxic chemicals, green chemistry reduces hazardous waste from classroom experiments; by using examples from innovative companies, green chemistry provides real world context for abstract concepts; by changing the focus to find safer alternatives, green chemistry gives students the opportunity to use guided discovery to find their own solutions to problems; and finally, by redefining what it means to be a scientist, green chemistry opens more students to the possibility of a future in science.

Endothermic and Exothermic Reactions
University of Minnesota student Richard Harris demonstrates how to use pixie stix, liver, and hydrogen peroxide to teach endothermic and exothermic reactions.

Dr. Patrick Riley concluded the workshop by sharing his teaching team’s experiences of incorporating green chemistry into Northfield High School’s chemistry classes.  He acknowledged the barriers that teachers face, including tight budgets, reluctant administrative and teacher support for the change, restrictive curriculum standards, and limited time to create new lesson plans and experiments.  However, Dr. Riley was quick to point out that green chemistry experiments are often very inexpensive, require only a few ingredients you can find at your local grocery store or pharmacy, easily to link to existing curriculum topics, and are readily available through online resources.  But almost more important for teachers, Dr. Riley shared that every year his students are always very interested and engaged in green chemistry – when it is time for selecting group presentation topics, green chemistry is always one of the first ones taken.

After the presentations wrapped up, the workshop transformed into a chemistry classroom, as three of Dr. Jane Wissinger’s undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota’s Chemistry Department took the stage.  These aspiring chemistry teachers and chemists led six interactive green chemistry experiments that teachers could use in their own classrooms.  A crowd favorite was an experiment that demonstrated exothermic and endothermic reactions that replaced the traditional method of using calcium chloride and ammonium nitrate.  The experiment required ingredients a teacher could pick up on her way to school: pixie stix, liver, and hydrogen peroxide – not a very appetizing combination, but the experiment only takes a few minutes, is non-toxic and is very captivating.  Other experiments included making and testing the strength of biodegradable sutures, making bioplastics out of different starches (e.g. potato, corn, and tapioca root), glue, sugar, and glycerol, and extracting the essential oils from an orange peel with dry ice.

Testing Sutures
University of Minnesota student Ming Yu demonstrates how to test the strength of sutures made in an experiment designed for high school students.

By the end of the workshop at least one teacher wished that she could go back and take high school chemistry again because of all the exciting opportunities that green chemistry offers students in the classroom.  Passionate teachers like those at the workshop are one of the strongest forces moving green chemistry forward in Minnesota and across the country.  One teacher in the audience was proof of the power teachers have to influence their students; “Dr. Wissinger pushed me in the direction of green chemistry,” said one of Dr. Wissinger’s former students.   Now this high school chemistry teacher is continuing her professor’s legacy by inspiring her own students to pursue green chemistry.

Workshop Presenters
Workshop presenters from left to right: Dr. Amy Cannon, Dr. Jane Wissinger, Aaron Johnson, Ming Yu, Dr. Paul Jackson, and Richard Harris. Not pictured: Patrick Riley.

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