Substitute modules are available to help educators weave green chemistry into existing curricula.
Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society
In the sustainability boom of “green” everything, from fashion to flooring and electronics to automobiles, eco-conscious choices are everywhere. Yet, in the race toward sustainability, green alternatives at the molecular level have yet to become mainstream. The American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) is seeking to change that, and their contributions have helped the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT) map new green chemistry requirements for approved bachelor’s degree programs that will go into effect in 2025.
According to Cora MacBeth, who teaches chemistry at Emory University and chairs the CPT, today's undergraduates are passionate about conservation and climate change, which is poised to impact not only where students live and work but also how they live and work. “They realize this is part of their life,” she says. “We want students to know that chemistry is a discipline you can go into if you want to have an impact in this area.”
Green chemistry can be interwoven into existing curricula to meet the requirements, according to David Laviska, ACS’s Portfolio Manager for Green Chemistry and Sustainability in Education, who urges chemistry program leaders to think intentionally about where lab chemicals originate, where chemical waste ends up, potential dangers and toxicity, and byproducts and waste created in the lab. In other words, a systems approach.
“This is fundamental knowledge that students should be learning anyway,” he says. Thinking critically about supply chains, waste management, and sustainability also helps students move beyond dualistic thinking. With green chemistry, Laviska says, there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers: “It's a discussion, a thought process, and a problem-solving activity,” he adds.
Incorporating Sustainable Principles
As of 2025, approved undergraduate chemistry programs must include the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in their curricula. The guidelines for this topic comprise the same three categories common to all ACS Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs: Critical Requirements, which demand that students develop a working knowledge of the 12 principles; Normal Expectations, which suggest that educators illustrate these principles with case studies from chemical, environmental health, regulatory, and business perspectives, with an eye to chemical processes and product design, and Markers of Excellence. This last category comprises aspirational aspects of green chemistry curricula, such as asking students to evaluate chemical products and processes and craft sustainable alternatives in real-life contexts or asking them to evaluate the impacts of a chemical product over its entire life cycle, from synthesis to disposal.
According to past CPT Chair Scott Reid of Marquette University, these three levels are designed to help chemistry educators balance adding green chemistry with other new and existing requirements and to ease into adding more sustainable concepts to their teaching. “We don't want to be too prescriptive, but at the same time, we do want to emphasize those things that we feel are important for the training of modern chemists,” he says. Green chemistry tops that list.
“We're not dictating how much time has to be dedicated to it,” MacBeth says. “We're just saying that students need to have a working knowledge and exposure to it.” To that end, programs aren’t required to offer a specific course in green chemistry, either, only to weave the 12 Principles into their existing curriculum as they choose.
“We want to give programs the maximum flexibility, and so we don't want, for example, to require programs to offer a course in green chemistry, even though we recognize that would be a great course and many programs might want to do that,” Reid says. Of course, if the principles are only covered in a standalone green chemistry course, that class would need to be required to meet CPT guidelines.
The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry include best practices and frameworks for incorporating sustainability into chemistry education and industry, valuing, for example, prevention of waste over cleanup and waste reduction in general. Other tenets are to avoid toxicity and waste by using synthetic methods to generate minimally toxic or non-toxic substances, avoiding solvents and separation agents, and limiting the use of reagents. A forward-looking lens also requires chemists to design chemical products for degradation, monitor processes in real-time to prevent pollution and select substances for chemical processes that minimize the potential for harmful accidents in the lab.
Substituting ‘Green’ Modules
To aid higher educators, GCI members are developing green chemistry modules designed to be swapped for existing portions of organic and general chemistry curricula, with an eye to the already heavy workloads many faculty members experience.
Although there will ultimately be more than a dozen modules, faculty members are free to choose whatever best suits their course programming, which might mean using just a portion of an available module. Suppose an instructor feels they can’t commit to a week-long module. In that case, Laviska says, “They can just do one lecture, topic, or exercise with their class, and then hopefully that will fire not only the class’ imagination, but their own imagination, and they’ll want to do more and more.” He believes the new guidelines will help chemistry programs stay current without overburdening professors with add-on requirements.
Modules are developed such that instructors can choose from a full complement of slides, readings, problem sets, test questions, and more, choosing how to incorporate them as the class progresses. “It's very tunable to the needs of the instructor,” says Adelina Voutchkova, Director of Sustainable Development and head of the Green Chemistry Institute at ACS. “It's not overwhelming because it substitutes as opposed to adds to the curriculum, which is a huge factor.” Three modules are already available: Stereochemistry: Introduction to Chirality, Systems Thinking, and Periodic Table, with a handful of others currently under development.
Early Adopters in the Lab
As a chemistry professor at Marquette, Reid says he is already participating in efforts to incorporate green principles by redesigning the university’s organic chemistry and analytical labs. “We've developed these new integrated lab courses that are designed to integrate topics across chemistry and expose students as a capstone type of laboratory experiment,” he says. Labwork, Reid adds, can be an intuitive way of incorporating green chemistry concepts.
As chemistry professors consider possible experiments, Reid says, “You might say, ‘OK, how can we make these greener? Can we do these on a smaller scale? Are there different solvents or different reactions that we could use?’” He also suggests replacing one lab at a time, as resources allow, for a smooth transition.
The benefits aren't only environmental. “Industry is very much interested in hiring people who know how to incorporate and think about sustainability and green chemistry in the way that they approach problem-solving in chemical processes,” MacBeth says. Both CPT and GCI leaders envision a gradual shift toward incorporating more and more green practices in higher education as students learn to apply sustainable practices in a systematic way while they develop as chemists, scientists, and community leaders.