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At Baylor, High School Teachers Are Learning About Green Chemistry

flickr.com/photos/siraf72/ (CC BY 2.0)

This summer, a handful of high school teachers from across the state of Texas came to Baylor to work and research green chemistry. As KWBU’s Carlos Morales reports, it’s all done under the umbrella of the Molecular Design Research Network.

Known as MoDRN for short, the Molecular Design Research Network is a collaboration between 4 universities – Yale, George Washington, Baylor and Washington university in Seattle. Funded through a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency, these universities research how chemicals can be made greener, how they can be developed to be more environmentally friendly.  

But there’s another component to it: education.

Jone Corrales is a post-doctoral research associate at Baylor. She’s helping with the research component of the workshop, and helping Texas teachers to understand greener chemistry.

“Today what we are doing here is, part of this research effort is to educate teachers, to bring in teachers, high school teachers from the state of Texas and walk them through the process that, the same as graduate students do in our laboratory, using the same equipment, using the same knowledge-based scientific methods," Corrales said.

The idea is to bring together teachers in the state to learn about green chemicals and how they can incorporate them into their lesson plans. During this workshop, the teachers here are doing hypothesis-driven research. The question: are everyday products like body wash, surface cleaner and laundry detergent that are marketed as being green actually green?   It’s a thorough introduction to the world of environmentally friendly chemicals that sees teachers at the 2-week workshop testing their hypotheses and developing lesson plans that involve green chemicals.

Patricia Weaver is a high school teacher at Valley Mills. She teaches a range of science classes, from biology to environmental science.

This is Weaver’s second time at the workshop. This year she’s here as a peer-mentor, learning and helping others who are going through the workshop for the first time.  In addition to the research they’re doing, teachers also create a green chemistry lesson plan to take back to their classrooms. Weaver’s lesson plan focused on water.

“My overall theme is about water. I focus on chemicals are everything and water is the most important chemical, it’s the reason there’s life on the planet," Weaver said. "So I focus on water chemistry and if we can do simple water chemistry tests to determine toxicity."

Weaver says ultimately she’d like to do a Daphnia study with her students. Daphnia are common water fleas that are generally used to test toxicity levels in chemicals. It’s what the teachers have been using at the workshop to test their hypotheses on. After the teachers finish their research, they then learned how to sort and plot the data. And today they’ll be wrapping up and presenting their work. The lesson plans they’ve done are in tune with the overall goal of MoDRN.

According to the MoDRN website, the idea is for the lesson plans to reinforce the understanding of chemistry’s role in everyday life and how we might make informed decisions that promote sustainability and choosing safer chemicals. It’s an important detail, says Melissa Mullins says, because these teachers are fostering the next generation of scientists.

“They’re fostering the students we’re gonna see here at Baylor, that they’re gonna see at Yale, and that they’re gonna see at the George Washington University and University of Washington," Mullins said. "These high school teachers are the ones working with those students so how do we connect them to some of the cutting-edge research that’s being done by MoDRN.” 

Mullins is an environmental education specialist at Baylor. She says approaches like the one MoDRN has taken – using an educational component to reach out to and inform others about its research – are important because it forces scientists to connect with others.

“It’s super important that we invite the public and that especially includes people that touch other people’s lives. It’s very important that we invite them to walk our journey with us and to help them understand what our science is all about.”

And ultimately, that’s the goal.