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Immerse, Include, Interact: The Green Formula for Education

06 Jun 2019 | Dr Glenn Hurst Dr Glenn Hurst, Assistant Professor at the Department of Chemistry at the University of York outlines how he was shortlisted in the Times Higher Education and Educate North awards for his innovative teaching practice.

In 2016, I was invited to go to Belém, Pará, Brazil to a global innovation imperative to teach green chemistry in remote locations. Upon visiting Belém, I began to understand some of the issues they were facing for effectively educating students at multiple levels. The availability of equipment, resources and lack of suitably trained teachers were just some of the challenges in the region. Inspired by this and aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development 1, I wanted to make a difference and utilise my love of teaching to do so. Walking through the Amazon Rainforest turned out to be a great source of inspiration to develop chemistry experiments using local and abundant resources...

Upon returning to the UK, I adopted a students as partners approach to work with undergraduates within the Department of Chemistry at the University of York to develop and implement transferable laboratory experiments that can be implemented across the globe. One example we started with is the popular children’s toy and outreach resource, silly putty (or slime). However, through working with the internationally leading Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York, students identified that one of the components of the gel can cause birth defects! We feel that this is certainly not something instructors should be using through education. As such, undergraduate students developed an experiment using a safe, cheap and green alternative (basically seaweed) which students in Brazil have already benefitted from 2 . Not content, we went a step further. Given the abundance of oranges in Brazil and the disposal issues associated with the peel, York students designed an experiment where a chemical called pectin can be extracted from the waste orange peel and valorised to produce a marmalade-based product, where the rheological properties can be studied.3

Further to working with students as part of their degree programme to develop practical experiments to teach green chemistry, I took inspiration from experts such as Professor David Smith NTF to integrate social media into my teaching and use it as a vehicle to engage a global audience. Here, I adopted Snapchat, a photo-messaging mobile phone application with the ability to share media with others. I used Snapchat to share how the content in my lectures could be applied for in the real-world, allowing students to contextualise subject matter. I was able to share exemplar practical techniques that students would subsequently conduct as part of a laboratory session. Snapchat also allowed me to share real research being conducted at York and elsewhere, allowing students who follow the account to gain a birds-eye view of cutting-edge work. For example, while we were developing green chemistry experiments in the Amazon Rainforest, I shared this to a cohort of students in York who conducted one of the experiments as part of their programme upon my return. Finally, I have used the platform to try to humanise me as an instructor by sharing some of my professional life with followers. Through this, students can become more engaged with the subject and it can assist them to see how course content affects their daily lives.4 

As well as using existing social media applications for education, through once again working with students as partners across the institution, students have not only developed apps to compartmentalise existing material on websites for admissions purposes (such as the Chemistry@York app), which has been adapted for use by other departments (e.g. Biosciences@York app) but students have developed new apps to facilitate game-based learning in chemistry (and green chemistry). These gaming platforms have been integrated with social media in the form of cohort-wide competitions, where students are encouraged to share their high score with instructors via social media for a prize. Using social media has also enabled students to ask questions and receive feedback via an alternative route. Therefore embracing technology in this way serves as another vehicle (in addition to implementable practical experiments and using social media) to educate students internationally, moving us, in this case, closer towards effectively training the next generation of scientists, engineers and policy-makers to be ambassadors in the provision of a sustainable future.

I have found that working with students as partners is an exceedingly effective method for developing educational resources that are transferrable for use in developed and developing countries. From a student perspective, as well as being of benefit to future cohorts of students and indeed, learners from across the world, production of such resources (be it in the form of a mobile app or related publication in the pedagogic literature), has significant employability benefits, helping students stand out from others. From an instructor perspective, such projects can be completed as part of paid summer internships, but there is an increasing focus on incorporation of discipline specific educational research projects in degree programmes based outside of education. In this way, students can complete such projects that are credit-bearing as part of their degree programme. 

2: Garrett, B.; Matharu, A. S.; Hurst, G. A. Using greener gels to explore rheology. J. Chem. Educ. 2017, 94, 500-504.
3: Mackenzie, L. S.; Tyrrell, H.; Thomas, R.; Matharu, A. S.; Clark, J. H.; Hurst, G. A. Valorization of waste orange peel to produce shear thinning gels. J. Chem. Educ. 2019.
4. Hurst, G. A. Utilizing Snapchat to facilitate engagement with and contextualisation of undergraduate chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 2018, 95, 1875-1880.


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