University of Vermont

University Communications

Chemistry for Teaching

Release Date: 09-08-2010

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Email: Jon.Reidel@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Eliza Arsenault

Senior Eliza Arsenault delivers her presentation on green chemistry -- and takes questions from adults and children -- at Burlington's Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Seniors Michelle Borsavage and Eliza Arsenault didn't mind changing their summer plans when Matthias Brewer, assistant professor of chemistry, asked them if they'd be interested in developing a multimedia program on "Green Chemistry" to present to the 500-plus daily visitors at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center.

The summer internship offer -- part of a major National Science Foundation (NSF) grant landed by Brewer -- started with a four-day training at ECHO that focused on the development of a hands-on green "chemistry encounter" to be conducted daily on the exhibit floor. Borsavage and Arsenault also created an outreach display in the main lobby that included a DVD on the principles of green chemistry; a notebook with applicable research and articles; and a display case with tools typically found in a green chemistry laboratory.

The opportunity was tailor-made for Borsavage, an education major who loves chemistry, and Arsenault, a chemistry major who loves to teach, to hone their curriculum building and teaching presentation skills. The most applicable exercise in that regard was the development and delivery of a 30-minute green chemistry presentation that included a chemical experiment. They presented it to many of the center's 45,000 patrons over the summer, which both students say helped clarify their post-graduation plans of wanting to teach K-12 chemistry.

"I've wanted to be a teacher since second grade, and this internship only made that commitment even stronger," says Borsavage. "This was the first time I was able to talk about content knowledge and chemistry to the public, and I loved it. There's no question in my mind that I want to teach after this eye opening experience."

Playing a key role in a major NSF grant

Brewer, who works on assembling complex molecules from simple starting materials with a focus on improving the way medicines are made, won a highly competitive $500,000 NSF CAREER grant in 2008 titled, "Synthetic Methodology for the Preparation of Polycyclic Nitrogen or Oxygen Containing Heterocycles." He joined past UVM winners Paul Bierman (1997), Chris Landry (1999), Naomi Chesler (2000), Darren Hitt (2001), Adel Sadek (2002), Randall Headrick and David Bucci (2004), Britt Holmen (2006), and Rory Waterman (2008).

Since then, Brewer has incorporated green concepts and experiments into his undergraduate organic curriculum hoping to lay the groundwork for the next generation of chemists to develop more efficient and environmentally friendly processes -- a major component of green chemistry. The NSF grant included an adult education and public outreach component that Brewer felt was important to help dispel some of the misconceptions about chemistry. "Chemists get a bad rap because most of the public only hears horror stories and not about all of the good things that chemistry has done for people."

Brewer, who expects chemists to play a critical role in the development of a host of environmentally safe consumer products and medicines, approached Borsavage and Arsenault during his organic chemistry course to see if they'd be interested in delivering the adult education component through ECHO.

"Magically, the stars aligned and I was able to find two students who are ambitious and reliable, but also very interested in education," says Brewer, who took a week-long course at the University of Oregon on how to incorporate green chemistry into curriculum and labs. "The connection with ECHO has been a valuable partnership for the university." The staff at ECHO also helped Brewer develop and deliver two 30-minute presentations as part of its "Meet the Scientist" program given to ECHO audiences.

Crash course in green chemistry

In June, Borsavage and Arsenault participated in ECHO's informal training program, which prepared them to coordinate daily activities on ECHO's exhibit floor, facilitate interactive activities, and develop and deliver daily public programs. Linda Bowden, Lifelong Learning Coordinator & Educator at ECHO, says ECHO trains between 5-10 UVM student interns each year and that the relationship has been mutually rewarding.

Read about Michelle Borsavage's success teaching a group of young girls about green chemistry on the "Below the Surface" ECHO blog.

The first step for Borsavage and Arsenault was to define green chemistry in a way that was easily understandable and prominently displayed. They ended up posting the following definition at the center of their lobby display: "Green Chemistry is the use of 12 principles that reduce the generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture, and application of chemical products." Borsavage says the overriding goal was to facilitate green chemistry laboratory programs for teens and adults to demonstrate the recent steps scientists have taken to create safe and environmentally friendly laboratories and products. This included the development and staffing of an exhibit on biodegradable plastics, which Borsavage explains are made specifically to mimic polymers (long chains of repeating sub-units, i.e. DNA strands and silk) that are naturally occurring.

How well they got their message across depended, in part, on their audience. During one presentation, Arsenault had a particularly eager young boy ask numerous questions with no apparent end in sight. She calmly answered them before refocusing his energies with an experiment involving the mixing of two solutions into a beaker that created a stringy, gooey version of nylon. She then had the boy and five other kids stand in the front of the room playing individual monomers before having them join hands to become a polymer. The exercise not only refocused the inquisitive youngster, but also generated questions from parents.

"It can be challenging sometimes depending on the makeup of the group, but I really loved engaging in conversations with people of all ages," says Arsenault. I usually had a few adults in each group who knew about green chemistry, but most hadn't heard of it, so we wanted to make sure it was easily understandable to both kids and adults."