Chemistry education must change to help the planet: here’s how

Students working in a chemistry lab at Ramnarin Roya College, Mumbai.

Classroom chemistry needs to equip students and students with the knowledge and skills to design products in a way that minimizes harm.Credit: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times/Getty

Generations of chemists have taken what nature has to offer and turned it into highly useful products – from medicines to dyes, from fertilizers to food packaging. But the current environmental crisis, in terms of carbon emissions and plastic pollution, is also a creation of chemistry. This means that chemists must re-engineer their working methods as part of efforts to solve them — including rethinking how they educate current and future generations of chemists. This is happening, although nowhere near as fast as it should be.

in nature This week, chemist Bartosz Grzybowski of the Ulsan Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea and colleagues describe one such effort, which uses artificial intelligence to repurpose waste compounds into useful products. Algorithms trained on thousands of reactions have suggested ways to create about 300 known chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and agriculture. They include the antibiotic dapsone and a key intermediate for a muscle relaxant called cesaturacurium, a drug that has been used in treating people with COVID-19.

This work is among the most recent contributions to green chemistry, a movement that began in the 1990s with efforts to find environmentally friendly ways to conduct chemical reactions, using environmentally friendly solvents, for example, or less energy-intensive reaction conditions. Since then, there have been advances, such as improvements in plastic recycling and the development of catalysts that can break down non-perishable materials into smaller, more useful particles. Sustainable chemistry research is expected to get more support as talks begin on a legally binding international treaty aimed at eliminating plastic pollution.

But for research to advance faster, a reset is required in the classroom as well—in both school and university teaching. Chemistry education needs to change so that students are taught how to design pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers, in safe and sustainable ways.

Some universities now offer graduate courses in environmental, green, or sustainable chemistry, and increasingly school and university chemistry courses include the chemistry of climate change, covering the health, environmental, and social impacts of chemistry.

But providing students and students with the knowledge and skills to design products in a way that minimizes or eliminates harm is an even greater challenge. In many countries, sustainability is not yet treated as a basic or core concept in undergraduate and secondary level chemistry. Worryingly, in many nations, school chemistry curricula remain similar to those taught several decades ago.

Researchers who study chemistry in education advocate that the curriculum be based on a systems thinking approach. This would teach students how to understand the links between the elements that make up a chemical compound or product, and how to identify the broader effects of chemistry – for example, on the economy, society, the environment and human health.

At the same time, some core components of the chemistry curriculum are also ripe for rethinking. Organic chemistry is one example, according to David Constable of the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute in Washington, D.C., and colleagues (DJC Constable). J. Kim. education. 962689-2699; 2019). Organic chemistry courses are “largely geared toward transformations of carbon compounds from fossil sources using chemical reagents and catalysts,” the authors write in a commentary in a special issue of Journal of Chemical Education Dedicated to reimagining chemistry education. Many of these compounds are difficult to recycle and reuse – or recycling is an afterthought. Moreover, the reagents involved can be dangerous. The researchers suggest that more students should study the chemistry of compounds produced by living organisms – a topic taught in biochemistry courses – as well as compounds that are easier to recycle. Doing so will help students design products that are biodegradable, or that can be broken down more easily into their milder parts, ready to find other uses.

Universities and professional societies for chemistry understand what is needed and are helping to bring about change. Imperial College London has put two long-running MSc courses on hold – in Petroleum Engineering and Petroleum Geosciences. The American Chemical Society has an active program of research and engagement in sustainable chemistry education, with a strong focus on systems thinking. The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has said it recognizes that school chemistry does not adequately prepare the next generation for a world dominated by climate change and sustainability, and is recommending changes to schools’ curricula.

Last year, the RSC conducted a survey of chemistry teachers and students in the UK and Ireland which showed that not all teachers (particularly those teaching pupils aged 16 or over) are confident they have the subject knowledge to teach chemistry in a different way. But the survey also showed that pupils are eager to learn more. School-age respondents told the community that they are very concerned about climate change and are interested in careers that involve sustainability.

There is no escaping the challenges inherent in introducing difficult concepts. But if students are willing to learn – as the RSC survey suggests – it will make the job more satisfying, and will ensure that the next generation of chemists has the knowledge and skills to lead a much-needed revolution.

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