An interview with Rob Maleczka and James E. “Ned” Jackson
In 2013, Beyond Benign created the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) program with guidance from higher educatio
ninstitutions as a framework to unite the global green chemistry community. The GCC goal is to infuse green chemistry into Higher Education and give scientists the required skills to design processes and products less hazardous to human health and the environment.
Beyond Benign has partnered with companies including Dow, MilliporeSigma, and Biogen to further its mission to empower educators to transform chemistry education for a sustainable future. Support from these partners has allowed Beyond Benign to create resources, foster relationships, and provide essential funding to educators, all in an effort to grow and strengthen the Green Chemistry education community.
Michigan State University (MSU) is a Dow grant winner and GCC signer. Discover the university’s story in our interview with Professor Rob Maleczka and Professor James E. “Ned” Jackson.
How has being part of the GCC impacted your institution and you as a faculty member?
Rob: At Michigan State, green chemistry has long been part of the conversation. (After all, “Go Green” is part of the MSU lexicon!) For example, minimizing waste was among the drivers that led us to move to microscale labs decades ago. But making the Green Chemistry Commitment brought a sharper focus to those conversations, and teaching green chemistry became a more concrete goal. This is perhaps best illustrated by changes in our large enrollment organic sequence to labs that are not only inquiry-based but also built around Principles of Green Chemistry. We also now include a module on green chemistry in our course on chemical safety. And I think signing the GCC has provided added value to Professor Ned Jackson’s long running freshman seminar course on Green Chemistry. For me personally, being part of the GCC has motivated me not so much to change the specific body of chemistry that I’m teaching, but to change aspects of how I present that same chemistry.
Ned: Most of my own Green Chemistry activities are local. For instance, in my majors’ organic lectures, I describe and broadly illustrate the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, including a special session on GC research at MSU. In my freshmen Green Chemistry seminar, besides the 12 Principles, we draw on environmental and historical stories of chemical syntheses (Hock cumene-phenol process), disasters (tetraethyllead in gasoline; global warming), triumphs (freons for refrigeration…) and unintended consequences (…but then ozone layer problems), showing how deep chemical understanding is needed to address many of the worlds largest problems. My own lab’s research has long had a focus on development of paths to make organic products and fuels from non-fossil sources. It is useful to know that the GCC offers resources and insights that I can access to enrich the work, both teaching and research. As an institution, and in collaboration with our chemical education colleagues, MSU has fully redesigned and updated our large non-majors organic lab experiences to include experiments that illustrate GC principles and metrics.
What student outcomes have you observed since instituting green chemistry practices and principles?
Rob: Students who are interested in joining my lab as undergraduate researchers are most definitely motivated by the prospect of making chemistry greener and more environmentally friendly. Perhaps just as significantly, they often bring with them pertinent green chemistry knowledge (e.g. which solvents are green and which aren’t). With the transformation of our lab courses, we now see students drawing conclusions made through the lens of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. Of course, what I’d like to think is that we’ve built the principles into their broader views on the environment and sustainability, as well as society and the economy. To be honest, I don’t know if we have achieved these larger outcomes. But this question has got me thinking that we should try to find out!
Ned: Students show gains in awareness and desire to connect chemistry to broader interests in environmental science, sustainability, critical evaluation of news and advertising, etc. Overall, their appreciation of chemistry as much more than an academic subject is expanded. Also growing is student interest in participating in research projects aimed at “greening” the world’s major chemical processes—energy, plastics, pharmaceuticals, recycling, etc.
How do you envision the GCC community supporting the future green chemistry goals of your institution and training of your students?
Rob: Maybe the GCC community can help with the last part of my answer to question 2! I see the GCC community as a catalyst that leads us to further refresh and renew Chemistry’s curriculum. As we do so, Beyond Benign’s resource gathering and sharing is sure to be helpful. Ideally, I’d also like to envision the GCC community becoming even more integrated in graduate education and training. In this regard, bringing more industrial partners into the community to better chart the role green chemistry can play in the professional development of our students would be terrific. Lastly, it would be a violation of some sort of faculty code if I didn’t say: it would also be terrific if to help support green chemistry goals, the GCC community were to work together on finding new ways to shake loose the needed funding from our respective administrations!
Ned: Though there is much material we draw on even within the academic ecosystem of MSU, I think we need to more thoroughly survey the offerings and exploit the stories and expertise accessible via our connection to the GCC. It is inspiring to have a clearinghouse for the creativity others have brought to both teaching and research efforts, illustrating both the significant needs, and the dynamism and versatility of tools, ideas, and new options that chemistry still offers.