Veronica Morabito Weeks, a passionate fifth-grade educator with 28 years of teaching expertise in Long Island, New York, emphasizes that while green chemistry is commonly associated with environmental sciences in elementary classrooms, she has successfully integrated its principles across various subjects such as ELA, economics, civics, and even within discussions about food. “Being an elementary teacher, I don’t just do science. I do everything!” Veronica says. “I stick science in everywhere.”
Through innovative lessons based on situations and settings familiar to her students, Veronica utilizes the environment as a gateway to comprehending green chemistry, ensuring that learning remains engaging and enjoyable.
A Call to Action Through Chemistry
Through engaging projects that relate to the world around them, Veronica’s students have had the opportunity to think about the environment they want to live in and brainstorm innovative ways to bring about change.
One of her classroom projects centered around a particulate matter device called the flow device, which detected poor air quality in their classroom, located near the Long Island Expressway and an industrial park. Concerned about their breathing difficulties and prevalent asthma, especially following the end of the COVID era when chemicals were used for sanitation, the students initiated investigations using the flow device. They observed how cleaning chemicals triggered the device and noticed spikes during high traffic times, like lunch breaks.
Motivated by their findings, the students brainstormed solutions. They explored biomimicry, particularly the Sharklet Biomimicry, aiming to create non-toxic sanitizers for their desks. Additionally, they proposed designing barriers along the expressway using materials like cork that could absorb toxins, presenting these innovative ideas at a virtual symposium.
“They played around with green chemistry and how they could make their own disinfectants,” Veronica says. “That was another favorite. They used the Think Dirty app to look at different products and how toxic they are. And it was shocking.”
Veronica described another impactful classroom project centered around exploring plastics, inspired by Beyond Benign’s Plastics labs. Students engaged in creating plastics from benign household items, testing these materials to ensure they possessed desired characteristics. Taking their learning further, they linked their knowledge to real-world issues. They learned about a New York City bill in the Senate aimed at reducing plastic bags and eliminating single-use items like shampoos in hotels.
“These fifth-grade kids went wild!” Veronica says. “They wrote letters and sent them to Albany to our local Senator, Monica Martinez. She came into the classroom, and she was so thrilled. She said, ‘You kids have to come to Albany and present this!’”
The bill passed, leading to a victorious moment for the students. This experience not only connected science with civic engagement but also highlighted the intersection between economics and the environment. Veronica emphasized the importance of providing solutions rather than simply raising concerns and encouraged her students to offer alternatives while advocating for change.
“I tell them it’s not enough to just say, ‘You can’t have bug spray because it’s toxic,’ and to then use nothing at all,” Veronica says. “You have to change it — make it so we can have it, but it’s not going to kill us. That’s what we try to get across. We’re always going to have plastic, but let’s make the plastic better and biodegradable. And not create so much of it.”
Exploring Green Chemistry Through Real-Life Food Experiences
Veronica has discovered that igniting her students’ enthusiasm for green chemistry requires tapping into real-life experiences and interests, a principle that was especially evident in her teachings revolving around food. In one example, upon discovering the toxins in popular energy drinks, her fifth graders sought to create healthier alternatives without compromising taste or quality.
Through engaging units like the Plate to Planet program, created in collaboration by Impossible Foods, Beyond Benign, and Veronica, students explored alternatives to food waste in the cafeteria and alternatives to meat consumption. “They couldn’t believe how much was being thrown out!” The Plate to Planet “Science of Food” unit connected to different subjects and actions. Students investigated the components of common food items and experimented with creating natural food dyes. Their goal was to substitute artificial dyes with more sustainable and healthier options, balancing functionality, taste, and color stability.
We started an outside compost and vegetable garden outside our classroom (economics/biology). They wrote and petitioned our cafeteria to have Impossible Burgers so they would have choices that are more sustainable (civics/food science/sustainability). Some students even worked with their parents to reduce their meat intake after learning more about environmentally friendly options
“We share that when you change a product to something more ‘green,’ it still has to function well,” Veronica says. “It still has to taste good. It has to hold its color. For example, we were making frosting, and we wanted it to be red. So we tried strawberries. We tried a variety of different things because we wanted to see if the flavor would change. They found something they really liked, and they wanted the recipe for their parents.”
Having hands-on experience with changing the world around them through chemistry has been impactful for her students. “You can see how much of our green chemistry approach at this level is connected to the environment, and kids are learning how much agency they have to make a difference in their world,” Veronica says. “They learn it is very possible to influence their surroundings through their understanding of science. We don’t have labs where we are using a lot of intense chemicals, so we had to find a way for kids to connect.”
Cornell Collaboration: Unveiling Vaping’s Impact on Cells and the Environment
Veronica’s students’ deep engagement with chemistry has gotten a big boost through her close collaboration with Cornell University’s impactful programs, particularly the Cornell ASSET (Advancing Secondary Science Education through Tetrahymena) Program from the College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology. While primarily tailored for high school levels, Veronica adapted two of their kits for elementary students, infusing them with green chemistry principles.
One of these kits, the Chemotaxis Kit, explores chemical reactions using Tetrahymena, microscopic organisms found in ponds. Veronica’s students utilize Tetrahymena to investigate the effects of vaping chemicals on cells, drawing parallels between Tetrahymena and human respiratory cells.
“We are hoping that it stops them from vaping because that’s a huge problem out here,” Veronica says. “They see clearly what happens to the cells. They explode. And the kids are horrified, saying, ‘Oh my God! I’m never gonna do it, I promise you!’”
Cornell provides microscopes and vaping extracts for the experiments. Veronica emphasizes the broader environmental consequences, discussing how vaping toxins might affect waterways, thereby nurturing a sense of responsibility toward environmental stewardship among her students.
“They are developing agency to do something about it, for themselves, for their families, and for the immediate environment around them, teaching them that they have the power to impact change,” she says.
Part of Everything
Veronica emphasizes that when green chemistry is approached as a component throughout her curriculum rather than a siloed subject, it becomes more accessible to students and educators.
“We try to make our approach simple so we can share with other teachers,” she says. “Sometimes elementary teachers are intimidated by chemistry because they don’t feel like they are trained enough or it is too hard. I share that it is more simple than they believe. I am not a chemistry person, but I have always loved it, and I’ve taught myself. I find that chemistry is part of everything: your food, your products, your water. I try to help others to not be afraid of it, little by little.”
As a Beyond Benign Lead Teacher, Veronica is doing this work through her engagement in the Observe, Wonder, Think Webinar series. In November 2023, Veronica shared her biomimicry resources with a diverse audience of educators ranging from K-12 teachers to Higher Education faculty members. At Observe, Wonder, Think webinars, educators are able to come together for fruitful and enriching conversations that help them bring green chemistry into classrooms across the country, and the world. To learn from and connect with educators like Veronica, interested community members can join us, monthly, by registering here. To hear Veronica’s presentation on Biomimicry, visit the YouTube video, linked here.
To connect with Veronica and hear more about her work, find her on the Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community.