Johanna Brown is a chemistry teacher at Pullman High School in Washington. A passionate educator with an eye toward the future, Johanna has made green chemistry lessons an essential part of her students’ curricula, and she’s also supported other teachers in their green chemistry education.
We talked to Johanna about her background in education and how green chemistry has made her students more engaged in the classroom. As Earth Day approaches, we’re celebrating the connection between green chemistry principles and our ongoing commitment to being stewards of our environment. As Johanna says, “every day is Earth Day.”
Beyond Benign (BB): Tell us a little bit about your background. Why did you become a science teacher, and what motivated you to start learning about and teaching about green chemistry?
Johanna Brown (JB): From a young age, growing up in Spokane, Washington, I have always been very concerned about our planet and all of the living things on it. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do but thought deeply about healthcare. In high school I had a teacher tell me that I would make a great teacher, and I brushed him off, ready to get into STEM in college. At the end of my chemistry program at Western Washington University, I realized that the lab was not my destiny and ended up working at WSU in Residence Life, where I (not surprisingly) helped with a campus-wide sustainability competition. I was teaching a leadership class there and tutoring chemistry when it all clicked, and I knew I needed to go back and get my teaching certification.
I’ll admit that while earning my chemistry degree and early in my teaching, I had the ideas of sustainability and chemistry completely separate in my mind. Once I learned about the 12 principles of green chemistry and how they could be embedded into my classroom, it felt like such a natural pairing. I have now taken both of the Beyond Benign Green Chemistry courses, and those really amped up my ability to teach in this context. Then, seeing how sustainable chemistry is such a natural fit with the NGSS has spurred me to write my own green lessons and labs.
BB: Why do you think it’s important for teachers to incorporate green chemistry principles into their science classrooms?
JB: Green chemistry is just a no-brainer to me. Teachers, students, and all living things benefit from using materials that do not harm us or our environment. Using more benign and everyday chemicals has the added benefits of making lab clean-up a breeze and much cheaper. Since I don’t need to purchase many lab-grade chemicals from specialty suppliers, I can grab consumables for a much lower price at my local grocery store. I do often have to explain why I am buying 100 pixie stix, dry ice, and liquid starch at the same time.
What I didn’t expect at first, and what I have found the most important for my student learning, is that green chemistry is more applicable to students’ lives. While getting that gorgeous yellow lead (II) iodide precipitate to form is attention-getting, students don’t form a strong connection with that phenomenon. If we are truly going to teach the NGSS, we need to embed our instruction in situations that they can connect to. Think IMFs with washcloths and absorbance, stoichiometry with fuel calculations, bond energy and activation energy with candles. I now tend to use videos to show the more flash-bang type of demonstrations while having students really get their hands on safer substances that they can actually connect with.
BB: In the time that you’ve been involved in green chemistry teaching and training, have you noticed any trends in teaching?
JB: I am happy to report that we are definitely moving away from the old demo-a-day, lecture, test algorithm that was seen in many chemistry classrooms from the past. As more and more schools truly commit to the NGSS and dig into the standards, it is clear that the model of stand-alone content areas is history. The chemistry classes of today need engineering practices, earth science, and application to name just a few additions. I think the interest will only keep growing as we better acknowledge the science of keeping our planet habitable.
BB: Tell us about your background leading green chemistry trainings.
JB: I have to say that I am very lucky to have great friends and colleagues. After attending a training session at the Washington Science Teacher Association state conference, I got connected to Saskia Van Bergen, who works out of the Washington State Department of Ecology. Her office sponsored half of my Beyond Benign High School Summer course and after that, she had the idea to put together some in person training for people in Washington State. We had planned for a great day of green chemistry in Spokane for May of 2020. That didn’t work out, but we pivoted and ended up writing three different sessions for high school, middle school, and elementary school and presented them virtually (and hands-on, we mailed out packets!) sessions. We did this in the summer of 2021 as well, and our middle school session has now been developed into a self-paced course via ClimeTime funding and Cari Haug, a science coordinator in central Washington.
Through these we have reached hundreds of Washington teachers at every level, and I was so amazed at our feedback. I think many teachers want to address climate change and ideas of sustainability but aren’t sure where to start. We offered immediately implementable activities that teachers are now doing in their classrooms, and some of them are even designing their own place-based lessons!
BB: What advancements do you think are most necessary in order to get green chemistry into more classrooms?
JB: The labs that Beyond Benign have are great ways for teachers to get started. As more and more schools are heading toward phenomenon-based learning, we need to create high-quality instructional materials that are three-dimensional and unit-based that focus around an aspect of green chemistry. As always, I think that many people are interested, we just need to lower the activation energy for them to try it, so to say.
BB: Earth Day is coming up! Do you have anything special planned for your classroom?
JB: I am more of an “every day is Earth Day” sort of person. After the exam, AP Chemistry will do a full environmental chemistry unit, studying polymers, plastics, water quality, and air quality. My classic chemistry course will be looking at food waste that day and how food waste heading to a landfill vs. a compost has different effects on the Earth. Find it here!