McMaster University: Sustainable chemistry program gives students tools to tackle major societal and environmental issues

Chemistry needs an image overhaul, says Gillian Goward.

“People hear the word ‘chemistry’ and they assume toxic waste,” says the chair of McMaster’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Instead, Goward says, chemists play a part in many beneficial technologies, can help develop environmental stewardship practices and are increasingly adopting more sustainable practices by following the 12 principles of green chemistry.

“We want to make sure that students understand that [chemistry] can be part of the solution to issues like climate change,” says Goward. “But the only way to do it is to have chemists who can look at the problem with a chemist’s point of view and come up with a solution.”

Goward is one of the professors who helped developed the curriculum for McMaster’s Honours Sustainable Chemistry Program, one of the first of its kind in Canada.

Built on an inquiry-based model that incorporates experiential approaches, the program illustrates McMaster’s partnered approach to teaching and learning as well as the university’s efforts to advance human and societal health and well-being.

“We came together and said, ‘What can we do at the undergrad level to get students aware that actually you need a chemistry toolkit to solve lots of questions in the area of sustainability?’” says Goward.

The program, which welcomed the first cohort of students in the fall of 2021, built on a popular Faculty of Science minor in sustainability. Students can choose from a four-year program or a five-year program.

Breanna Pinto, who was a member of the program’s initial cohort of five students, says she has enjoyed the structure of the program, which offers experiential learning opportunities and the flexibility to explore other courses outside of the classic theoretical chemistry framework.

“I’ve really enjoyed the interactive style. The small class sizes allow you to really discuss the content with your peers,” says Pinto, who will be completing a co-op placement at The Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment in Nova Scotia this summer.

Students engage in discussions about real-life sustainability issues, debating topics like plastic versus glass ketchup bottles, cloth versus disposable diapers or whether natural materials are always better than synthetic ones.

“So you should think about not just what is the sort of green washed solution, but actually the two different sides of the coin,” says Goward.

Pinto says her favourite aspect of the program has been hearing from guest speakers who share their industry expertise.

“It opened my eyes to why there’s so much need in any industry, any company, for people that are going to look at, ‘Okay, here’s the process, how can we make this more environmentally efficient?’ How can we revamp the structure and hierarchy so that we’re mitigating environmental impacts and putting out the best possible design?” says Pinto.

Goward says the effort to engage alumni who are working in sustainable practices as guest lecturers has been a great way to demonstrate potential career paths for students looking to identify and implement better ways to practise chemistry — especially as the threat of climate change intensifies.

“As climate change has become such a focal point, this is something that students want to get their heads around,” says Goward. “And we want to convince students and demonstrate with the results that we’re producing that we actually have tangible things to offer and career paths that will be up and coming and important.”

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