Chemistry Classes Following Industry Trend

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 26 Mar 2004
Time: 15:33:12
Remote Name:


Chemistry classes 'green' Schools follow industry trend of experimenting with gentler compounds.

By Keith Uhlig, Wausau (WI) Daily Herald

Mercury thermometers are gone, and you won't find students experimenting with arsenic in high school chemistry classrooms anymore.

It's all part of the "greening" of chemistry classes, and it's a reflection of a greater awareness of what some of the harsher chemicals historically used in labs can do to the environment. Educators also say the recent change in the way chemistry is taught is a trend started by businesses that already have struggled with chemical disposal difficulties - and are looking for new ways of recycling chemicals for reuse.

"Fifteen years ago, you wouldn't have thought twice about working with arsenic compounds," said D.J. Huddleston, a chemistry teacher at D.C. Everest High School.

Experiments at D.C. Everest are now conducted on a smaller scale - and that means less waste. And gentler compounds are used: For example, specimens now are stored in an alcohol-based preservative instead of formaldehyde, he said.

Tom Erdman, a chemistry teacher at Wausau East High School, said experiments with cyanide and heavy metals are a thing of the past, and so are old methods of disposing of them.

"I remember when everything went down the drain or in the wastebasket," he said. "We can't do that anymore."

Erdman said his students still do an experiment that uses lead, but like Everest's experiments, it's done on a smaller scale, and the waste is bagged and taken to a landfill.

He thinks many older chemicals will be slated for special disposal when teachers and students move out of the old Wausau East High School and into the new building.

"Things tend to sit around if you don't need them, if you don't use them," he said.

More high schools and colleges around the world are beginning to take the clean approach to chemistry even further, said Paul Jackson, a chemistry professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and a proponent of the trend.

Just because the work is becoming environmentally friendly doesn't mean that lessons are diluted, Jackson said. "It's the best chemistry possible." Green chemistry has its roots in industry, Jackson said. For instance, 3M has been working for years to reduce the amount of chemicals it uses to produce its products and to recycle what it does use.

"It hasn't gained a lot of momentum in the academic world until the last year or two," he said. "It's really about stewardship of resources." Jackson said chemistry experiments can be completely revamped using cleaner materials and still teach the same lesson.

In the past, Jackson's students conducted an experiment that precipitated, or separated out, lead with chromate. Lead is a poisonous heavy metal, and chromate is a hazardous material, he said. Now his students precipitate calcium using a different process. The overall lesson remains the same.

"Instead of limiting exposure, you're eliminating the hazard," he said.

Last changed: March 14, 2006