A new course at Gonzaga is changing the way students look at chemistry and its influence on their world.
The course title is simple: Green Chemistry. Its meaning is easy to misinterpret.
The term "green" carries a lot of baggage. For many, it conjures images of environmental activists, compost piles and tofu. But "green" means something else to Dr. Colin Thomas, the visiting assistant professor who designed the course.
"This is not chemistry for feeling good about the impact on environment," Thomas said. "We really need to start by making products that don't make a mess in the first place."
Thomas used plastics as an example.
"Chemists wanted to create the best product for the purpose without giving much thought to what happened after they were done with the material," Thomas said.
Now, he says scientists are adding another element to their design process. They are asking themselves: "What's the ultimate fate of this?"
Students in Green Chemistry are working on answering that question.
Designed for non-science majors, Green Chemistry is especially popular with business majors, according to Thomas. He says teaching the course to non-science majors is more challenging, but brings an interesting element to the classroom.
"My goal is not to have them become chemists, but have an understanding of what green chemists are doing," Thomas said.
Students develop this insight through written projects that research the developing technologies in green chemistry. Topics include oil regulations, tidal energy production and compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). The papers illustrate the conflict in practicing green chemistry: tradeoffs.
"By using CFLs we spend less on energy but depend more on toxic metals," Thomas said.
He hopes these projects will help students understand the consequences of green technologies and their effect on government policy.
It is not yet clear if the course will be offered again, but Thomas says students seem interested.
During the registration period the course was full in less than two days. There are 30 students in the class, two more than the class size limit.
"I wanted to take something that was different than basic bio, chem or
physics," junior Brian Franceschi said.
Dr. Joanne Smieja, chair and professor of the chemistry department, hopes the course will remain popular.
"If the course is as successful as we think it will be, we will petition to have it added to the 2009-2011 catalog next fall so that it can be offered on a regular basis," Smieja said.
Currently, there are no green chemistry courses for science majors. Smieja is trying to change that.
"To teach the fundamental tenets of green chemistry to science majors, we are in the process of revising several of our CHEM 101 labs to include the Green Chemistry approach," Smieja said.
For now, the non-science majors are enjoying Green Chemistry.
"It sounds like this class is going to be a lot of work but I think it will be very interesting," sophomore Sarah Rotar said.
When designing the course, Thomas worked to make the class not only educational, but an engaging experience for the non-science majors.
"Chemistry has a bad stigma of being difficult and for nerds," Thomas said. "But it really isn't that."