Some call it “carbon sugar snake.” You may have seen it in chemistry class: The teacher fills a large beaker with sugar, water and a liquid. Stir it up, and the reaction expels a black, sausage-like compound as perplexed students look on – and sometimes cough from all the smoke.
This curious experiment is the result of a reaction using concentrated sulfuric acid, also known as battery acid: not only a carcinogenic substance, but also highly corrosive. The fumes can cause permanent lung damage, and contact with skin produces instant burns. Interestingly, this is one of many dangerous materials still used in chemistry classes today – part of standard yet arguably outdated lesson plans that can expose children to unnecessary hazards.
In addition, the resulting “snake,” a highly acidic by-product, often gets tossed in the trash and heads straight for the landfill – without the recommended neutralization.
It all takes place before the observant eyes of children. Dr. Amy Cannon thinks there is a better way to do chemistry. Along with Dr John Warner, Amy is co-founder of Beyond Benign, a non-profit incorporated in August of 2007 with the goal of educating current and future scientists about a safer, more environmentally responsible form of chemistry known as “green chemistry.”
Established in the late 1990’s, green chemistry aims to replace current hazardous, polluting, or wasteful lab practices with safer and more sustainable techniques. It is the inspiration for products like low-VOC, non-toxic house paint made from recycled PET bottles. Or fabrics like Spandex produced from renewable resources in lieu of petroleum. Or AeroClay, an award-winning substitute for polystyrene (a highly polluting packaging product) recently created out of natural clay along with a biodegradable polymer.
In order for these important advances to continue, Beyond Benign aims to spark the creativity of the next generation of scientists – children and teens. With that in mind, the organization has developed extensive online and in-person educational programs for teachers and K-12 students showcasing green chemistry in action.
The Argosy Foundation has partnered with Beyond Benign with a $60,000 grant to refine and expand these training programs, as well as create additional online professional advancement tools for teachers – many of them available free of charge from the organization’s website. These lesson plans help teachers educate students about science using a zero emission, zero hazard, and zero waste approach – thus shaping kids’ scientific and civic pursuits accordingly.
With Argosy’s help, Beyond Benign is progressively replacing classroom hazards such as lead nitrate, chromium (a known carcinogen), and silver nitrate with non-toxic alternatives. “Industry no longer lets you use some of those things,” explained Cannon, “so it’s amazing that they’re still present in our high schools.”
Whereas chemistry’s more theatrical aspects may enthrall some children, overdoing them is a common pitfall for some teachers. Along with experiments such as “the sugar snake,” demonstrations with fire or explosions are common, and often result in bodily harm – or the loss of interest in chemistry altogether. “There are students out there – probably the girls – who watch those reactions and think, ‘Why would I want to do go into chemistry if it’s that dangerous?’” laments Cannon. Rather than endorsing them for learning purposes, Cannon equates explosions with the loss of life or the devastation of neighborhoods. “This is not something to show children as demonstrations of typical chemical reactions,” she once wrote. “These are examples of chemistry gone BAD!”
Still, children and teens want chemistry lessons that are interesting and exciting: They like the reactions; they want to see color changes. “That’s why we offer teachers a way to show kids the cool color changes they want to see by using non-toxic reactions,” said Cannon. “Iodine and starch, for example – two supermarket products – can also make that happen.”
What’s more, green chemistry lesson plans provide the contextual background often lacking in today’s abstract school chemistry labs, flush with concepts so intangible kids often can’t explain what they’ve just witnessed. In using elements familiar to kids, Beyond Benign brings science to their level of understanding while encouraging student collaboration and experimentation using sustainable methods.
Thus, when walking into a green chemistry school lab one might find children engaged in “forming a company” and creating their own shampoo – complete with environmental analysis of each ingredient as well as the development of a packaging and marketing plan –; or solar energy cell made using blackberry juice; or non-toxic car paint formulated with eggs, alcohol, mica and natural dyes. “Kids get really excited with how much chemists can do,” reveals Cannon, who has often heard kids express interest in pursuing chemistry as a career after taking part in these programs.
The Argosy Foundation is proud to partner with Beyond Benign in bringing green chemistry into the lives and imaginations of tomorrow’s inventors, as well as helping to eliminate pollution at the source and advance scientific technology in a healthy and environmentally responsible way.