April 20, 2009
Source: Piedmont 2001

Ram, Preetha
Chemistry Department

Project Summary

Excerpt from “The Piedmont Project at Emory University” by Peggy Barlett and Arri Eisen, in, Teaching Sustainability at Universities: Toward Curriculum Greening. 2002 Walter Leal Filho, editor. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

General Chemistry (Drs. Nancy Thornton, Preetha Ram, and Barry Ryan, Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences)
Drs. Thornton and Ram have devoted themselves, with the strong support of the rest of their Chemistry Department at Emory, to reshaping the entire introductory chemistry sequence. Part of this restructuring involves incorporating environmental awareness into the traditional general chemistry curriculum. Although this connection between chemistry and the environment may seem obvious, traditional introductory chemistry courses often sacrifice environmental (or any other) everyday context in the effort to cover vast quantities of basic science, leaving application to the students’ imagination.

Dr. Thornton’s efforts have been focused on the large, introductory lecture course and laboratory sessions of General Chemistry, where she has added environmental examples throughout the course. For example, in the chapter on Atoms, Molecules, and Ions, she added a discussion of radon gas, its radioactivity, and its effects on human health. In addition, the use of oxygen isotopes from ice core data to determine temperature and air composition over history is examined, laying the groundwork for a later discussion on global warming.

In the chapter on Thermodynamics and Energy, fossil fuels and global warming are discussed. Students work out calculations of energy output and carbon dioxide production of different fossil fuels and relate this to energy efficiency and global warming effects. Air composition and pollution are also brought into the course in the section on mixtures and compounds.

Dr. Thornton remarks, “I have greatly enjoyed researching and incorporating material related to this topic into my course. I think students enjoyed learning more about sustainability and how it relates to chemistry. I hope to be able to improve how we present the topic and how we involve the students.” The biggest challenge is how to integrate this new material, without sacrificing the other material that forms basic (and critical) building blocks for later courses. One approach that has been piloted by Dr. Barry Ryan, of Public Health and Chemistry, is to offer a separate General Chemistry section that has an environmental focus.

General Chemistry/Freshman Seminar Version (Dr. Preetha Ram, Department of Chemistry)
Another approach to integrating environmental issues into a general, introductory course is to treat one topic—Global Warming—extensively over a period of time. Dr. Ram’s course covers the same general chemistry in a small, seminar format, as part of the Emory requirement that every first year student enroll in at least one seminar class, in which enrollment is limited to 16. The topic is broached in assigned readings and is followed with discussion of the issues raised in the articles. Out of the initial discussion came the question, "Why are some gases “greenhouse gases” and some not?" This led to a discussion of three dimensional molecular structure. In a similar manner, the students raised questions such as "How and why are greenhouse gas concentrations changing?" which leads to the introduction of curricular material in order to answer those questions. As a part of this course, students conduct a study of awareness of global climate change among Emory students and learn to interpret the data.

This semester-long approach has the class revisiting the topic of global warming several times from diverse perspectives. Dr. Ram finds that the seminar format gives the teacher the flexibility to try out new ideas that then can be exported to a larger class. The experience of teaching the course has generated pedagogical reflections:

I have had to take a very critical look at our students’ learning experience and a very close look at our curriculum. I have concluded that it is as important to give students the tools of learning—critical thinking, analysis of problems, collaborative work, as it is to give them content. When thinking about the global warming issue, discussing it in class, hearing other opinions, looking for information and presenting it, students learn as much as when the class focuses in the abstract on gas laws. In fact, their enthusiasm and involvement in a real issue motivates them to learn more.

Thanks to our Green Lunch discussions and the readings I have had to do for the course, my understandings of these issues have deepened, and I am eager to learn more. I am also eager to bring up these issues with students.

Course Syllabus attached.

Download: Ram_2001.pdf (171.7 KB)

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