Integrating Sustainability Concepts into First Quarter General Chemistry

Gerry Prody, Western Washington University

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


The goal of this project is to insert sustainability concepts and issues into the general chemistry curriculum. Specifically, I focus on carbon as the example to be considered throughout the quarter. The challenge is that this course's content is prescribed by a department with little room for deviation. As such, I have developed an approach wherein the concepts of sustainability are introduced to the class during the first couple of lectures of the quarter and thereafter, sustainability ideas are addressed in the form of examples and problems relating these ideas to the regular succession of topics.

Learning Goals

The "big idea" is to integrate the students thinking about chemistry with thoughts about sustainability. Specifically, I focus on carbon as the example to be considered throughout the quarter. My hope is that this approach will not only increase the students' awareness about their roles in the future of the planet, but also allow them to apply chemistry in this context to this aspect of their everyday lives. Perhaps this will increase their desire to understand chemistry as well as their retention of the material.

Context for Use

Many of us agree that human sustainability requires the integration of economic, social and environmental processes with the goals of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Developing behaviors that actually realize these ideals is obviously a very complex goal. If we can encourage our students to believe that their attitudes and ways of life influence the future of our planet, I think they will have at least begun the process of developing a lifestyle that will contribute to a sustainable way of life.

General chemistry appears to be an ideal place to integrate concepts of sustainability into the classroom, particularly relating to environmental issues. As students begin to understand what elements are and how they interact with each other, they should easily come to the conclusion that our flagrant and excessive use of planetary resources cannot continue indefinitely. I cannot hope to expose them to all the areas of general chemistry that impact sustainability issues in 10 weeks, and so I have chosen the single topic of carbon issues as my focus.

Description and Teaching Materials

Introduction and Overview The ideas presented here could be applied in any general chemistry course, whether it be for science majors as mine is, or whether it is intended more for general education purposes. In fact, these suggestions might more easily be inserted into an overview chemistry class for non-majors. They could also be expanded further in subsequent general chemistry courses (which I rarely teach). At Western Washington University, our academic year is divided into 10 week quarters. During the first couple of lectures, I will present a brief overview of sustainability definitions and issues, along with an activity or two for the students to complete during class. Then, throughout the quarter I intend to (insidiously) insert sustainability examples throughout lectures. A template for these ideas is shown in the following table:

Topic / Sustainability Focus
Chapter 1: Intro/metric system, conservation of mass– Carbon calculator: tons to grams etc., climate change, resource management
Chapter 2: atoms and molecules– Calculate # CO2 molecules etc
Chapter 3 Reactions and equations– Calculate moles of CO2 from gal of gas etc.
Chapter 4: Stoichiometry in solutions
Chapter 7: Light and electrons– Photosynthesis, carbon offset
Chapter 8: Periodicity, electron configuration
Chapter 9, 10 Structure– Structures of greenhouse gasses

The Learning Activities

For this class, I plan to devote most of the first lecture to sustainability concepts. To begin, I want to assess the students' ideas and attitudes by asking them to discuss sustainability. My class of 96 students is offered in rooms with fixed seating so students talk to the three to four students they can access from their seats. I give them about five minutes to answer the following questions:
  1. What is sustainability? Devise a one sentence definition.
  2. Is sustainability important in your life?
  3. What behaviors do you espouse to enhance sustainability?
This discussion will be followed by an attempt to come to a class consensus on these topics, or to determine the range of ideas that students discussed. I expect this process to take about 15 minutes and will continue to solicit opinions and further discussion for another 5-10 minutes. I will follow with a brief presentation "What is Sustainability?" (see attached PowerPoint slides below) which I found on the Web by Jim Feldman, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and History, the Winnebago Project: A Faculty College at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, May 22-23, 2008, edited to fit my time frame. From this point, I will return to my normal general chemistry introductory lectures until we encounter the law of conservation of mass.

At this point, I plan to discuss climate change based on some PowerPoint slides (see attached file below) I have put together and introduce the idea of a carbon footprint. Then, I will assign students the task of going home and calculating their individual carbon footprints based on a variety of web calculators available. During the next class period, we will begin with a comparison of our various footprints and a discussion of some behaviors we might implement to reduce our impact.

Over the course of the quarter, I plan to introduce relevant examples focused on carbon cycling as focal points for learning. For example, when we discuss the mole concept, we will spend some time calculating mass, moles, number of atoms, etc. for carbon dioxide. As we balance equations, we will examine a number of combustion reactions, including those relating to burning fossil fuels like methane and octane. These ideas are not new, but as our discussion develops, I will continue to return to and build on the concepts of sustainability both in chemistry and in their everyday lives.

During our discussions of energy and bonding, I will give the students a brief presentation on light capture and the harnessing of energy via photosynthesis (see attached PowerPoint slides below – "Sun: Main Source of Energy for Life on Earth"). Unfortunately, the way our curriculum is currently structured, in depth discussions of energy and energy conversions are delayed until second quarter general chemistry, energies of electron transitions relating to the development of the Bohr atom are rigorously presented. This background should allow the students to grasp the qualitative ideas of photosynthesis and to discuss how photosynthesis can be employed to reduce our carbon footprints.

During the last portion of the course, we discuss bonding, molecular geometry and polarity. At this point we will discuss the structure of CO2 in depth and also discuss how its structure contributes to the greenhouse effect through absorption and remission of energy.

PowerPoint Slides (PowerPoint 49kB Nov1 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips


As in all general chemistry classes we offer here at Western, assessment occurs though testing. In addition to the testing, our in-class discussions will provide a platform where I can determine anecdotally what their progress is. I plan to include examples relating to sustainability issues on exams and, in particular, on the final exam. I will ask students to write an essay describing sustainability in terms of what they have learned throughout the quarter and how what they have learned applies to their everyday life.

References and Resources