In the face of a classroom emergency, Stefanie Loomis’s proactive adoption of green chemistry practices not only ensured the safety of her students and colleagues but also showcased the transformative power of these principles in education.
Catskill Senior High School in New York State recently received the kind of news that no school wants to hear during construction. A broken pipe was discovered in the crawl space under the science classrooms with a puddle of unidentified liquid underneath. Stefanie Loomis, a high school chemistry and physics teacher and Beyond Benign Lead Teacher, was teaching above that crawl space.
Several years prior, Stefanie met Annette Sebuyira, a Beyond Benign Certified Lead Teacher, at Siena College’s Green Chemistry Institute. The meeting sparked a collaboration that would shape Stefanie’s educational approach.
After meeting Annette, Stefanie enrolled in Beyond Benign’s intro and advanced courses and subsequently joined the Lead Teacher Program. Through this immersive experience, and with the help of supportive peers including a higher-education colleague at Siena College, she delved into the intricacies of lab safety, a domain she had previously navigated instinctively.
“I was a research chemist right out of college,” says Stefanie. “When I first started teaching, I knew nothing about education, so I just followed what all the other teachers were doing. That’s what they told me to do. Then I started to learn that that wasn’t a good idea.”
Stefanie’s encounter with green chemistry principles illuminated a safer and more innovative path, prompting a significant shift in her educational paradigm. That shift was a game-changer when Catskill Senior High School discovered the broken pipe.
A Lab-Safety Transformation
In 2014, Stefanie Loomis had embarked on a transformative journey toward greener, safer, and more sustainable teaching practices.
“When I first started teaching at Catskill, the chem closet was full of stuff that was older than me,” says Stefanie. “The labels were falling off.” Some of the chemicals in her inherited chem closet were dangerous, and had chemicals in them with labels warning against use for those of child-bearing age.
Guided by the principles of green chemistry, she began eliminating these hazardous chemicals, and meticulously examining her lab protocols. Collaborating with colleagues, she orchestrated the disposal of substances that posed risks, ensuring a safer environment for both students and staff.
“My chem closet is beautiful now,” says Stefanie. “The health and safety people will tell you that my chem closet is one of the cleanest and most well-organized they’ve seen, because we have gotten rid of anything and everything that we don’t use. And what we do use, we make sure we only have small amounts of.”
Perhaps the most significant impact of Stefanie’s efforts was the profound sense of security she instilled within her colleagues.
“One of our teachers was very excited when I told her what I’ve done,” says Stefanie, “and she’s more enthusiastic because she feels so much safer being in the lab. So not only do the kids feel safer, she feels safer, which is huge.”
As Stefanie’s reputation as a trailblazer in green chemistry spread, her influence expanded, encouraging others to embrace similar changes.
The Broken Pipe
In the spring of this year, the broken pipe underneath Stefanie’s chemistry classroom triggered a response that showcased the depth of her dedication to safety and preparedness. The broken pipe resulted in immediate alarm, and Stefanie was asked by the local safety department to compile a comprehensive inventory of all her lab materials and chemicals. This directive came with a sense of urgency.
“They told me that I needed to list every lab performed and every chemical that I had used in the last three years,” says Stefanie, “including how much of each reactant and product could have possibly gone down the drain. They didn’t know how long the pipe had been broken, and there was standing water under it. They needed to find out if chemicals were in that water and what they might be.”
Stefanie meticulously sifted through her lab plans, consulting her science binders and safety data sheets. Collaborating with a fellow teacher, she diligently cataloged every chemical used in her classroom.
“Fortunately, at this point my chemistry labs are pretty green,” says Stefanie. “I have transitioned most of my labs over to household chemicals, or they’re at micro scale, or the products are safe to go down the drain. Most of the labs the students can even do at home.”
Stefanie’s proactive approach to safety was evident during this crisis. When the test results arrived, affirming the safety of her classroom, relief permeated the school. Stefanie’s conscientious efforts had not only averted a potential disaster but also highlighted her classroom’s exceptional safety standards, with air quality ratings confirming the absence of harmful substances.
“I’ve been thanked by the Health and Safety Department,and I’ve been thanked by my principal, just saying, ‘We are so happy you were doing what you were doing, because this could have been a lot worse!’” she says.
The Future of Green Chemistry Education
Stefanie’s experience proves that embracing green chemistry in the classroom doesn’t always require a drastic overhaul; instead, it can be a gradual, seamless process. Her approach offers valuable insights for fellow teachers seeking to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their curriculum.
Stefanie emphasizes that the integration of green chemistry doesn’t demand explicit declarations; it can seamlessly operate in the background of classroom activities. By choosing safer chemicals and innovative teaching methods, teachers can subtly convey the essence of green chemistry.
“As time went on, I continued to pick two or three labs a year and find ways to substitute safer chemicals,” says Stefanie. “Transitioning to green chemistry wasn’t a lot more work, because I did it gradually.”
Stefanie’s journey underscores the significance of thoughtful planning and resource utilization.
“When I first learned about green chemistry, I thought it was something you did one time, and then you were done,” says Stefanie. “It’s not. It’s a continual thing. You’re constantly changing and editing and learning and applying.”
Evaluating each lab, considering alternatives, and discussing these choices with peers can guide educators toward more sustainable options. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing, evident in Stefanie’s engagement with the Siena College Green Chemistry Institute and her peers, can be instrumental in making informed decisions about chemical choices.
Green Chemistry in Action: How Not to Make Lemonade
Inspired by a Beyond Benign course, Stefanie has turned a simple lemonade-making activity into an engaging lesson on green chemistry principles. Through a humorous skit highlighting flawed lab practices, her students learn to critically analyze procedures and identify areas for improvement.
“I over-emphasize a really bad lab procedure,” says Stefanie, “and then I have them rewrite the procedure in their own words, sharing how we can make this a better procedure. Then they make their own lemonade at the end. This is how I introduce the green chemistry principles.”
This hands-on approach not only instills essential knowledge but also nurtures creativity and innovative thinking.
Collaborating with fellow educator Annette Sebuyira, Stefanie has also created a captivating Halloween murder mystery storyline. In this scenario, students apply green chemistry concepts to solve a mystery, incorporating elements from various labs. The Density Lab challenges students to analyze plastics, determining their densities to identify the murder weapon. To decipher the composition of a mysterious red liquid, students devise their own procedures using the Lemonade Lab concept.
Presenting their findings at the Eastern STANYS conference, Stefanie and Annette showcased the seamless integration of Beyond Benign labs with real-world scenarios. Their approach not only demonstrated the practical application of green chemistry but also emphasized the importance of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
Stefanie Loomis continues to inspire both students and educators, illustrating the exciting potential of green chemistry in transforming K-12 science education. Connect with Stefanie on the Green Chemistry Teaching & Learning Community (GCTLC) platform and check out the resources (under learning objects) that she has shared.