The students spoke, and U-M researchers listened: The future is sustainable plastics—at least for a two-week course in chemistry during the Michigan Math and Science Scholars program.
U-M chemist Anne McNeil has led a chemistry-focused summer camp as part of the MMSS program since 2015. During the first few years of the class, McNeil included an overview of several different types of polymer chemistry. But she and her fellow chemistry researchers—undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who help teach the class—noticed students’ ears perking up when the topic of sustainable polymers came up.
Over the past three years, McNeil and her team revised the course to focus solely on sustainable materials. A description of their class has been published in the Journal of Chemical Education.
“My own research group was shifting into sustainability-focused work, and I was noticing it was easier to recruit both graduate and undergraduate students to work in my group. Sustainability is such a gravitational force,” McNeil said. “We were noticing the MMSS students’ excitement when we got to the sustainability section in the earlier classes—it was something they wanted to talk about at the break. That’s the thing they would come up and ask questions about.”
For the course, international high school students as well as students from all over the United States meet for two weeks. The course takes students from mimicking and critiquing conventional recycling processes for petroleum-derived plastics to examining the characteristics of bio-derived and synthetic sustainable polymers using a series of experiments and field trips to engage the students. Polymers are a class of natural or synthetic materials composed of very large molecules. Examples include natural materials such as silk, fingernails, and cotton and synthetic materials such as vinyl, polyester and teflon.
The students begin their two-week camp with a crash course in chemistry, designed to put students with and without a chemistry background on a more even footing for the class. Then, the students go through a series of experiments recreating how the recycling industry sorts and processes common plastics. Finally, the students perform a set of experiments to synthesize their own synthetic sustainable polymers and sustainable biopolymers.
They also take field trips to The Big House—the football field at U-M—and learn what kinds of polymers compose everything from the grass to the players’ uniforms. An outing to a local ice cream shop highlights the polymers in ice cream and allows for a Q&A with international U-M students about their educational experience. The class also visits a local 3D printing company to learn about polymers used in 3D printing.
Each aspect of the class has been fine-tuned over the years based on student surveys and reactions during the class. The first camp focused solely on sustainable polymers was in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, the researchers tweaked the class so that the students could try experiments for the second and even third times, noticing that the students were most engaged in experiments when they could make hypotheses and test them out by trying the experiment again and again.
While the high school students attend the camp to learn about chemistry, the members of McNeil’s lab get a crash course in designing and teaching a science class. Kikelomo Sekoni helped develop and test each laboratory procedure used during the course to ensure that it could be carried out during the class. Then, she helped facilitate the class.
“Through this experience, I was able to hone skills in establishing a goal and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative results to improve the course,” said Sekoni, who graduated with a degree in movement science last year and is interested in sports medicine and educational research.
“I also valued the mentorship by my graduate team members. Through them I learned new techniques outside of my chemistry background and how to efficiently carry out old ones. Additionally, I learned how to be a better teacher by meeting each student where they are at academically and break down complex concepts.”
Postdoctoral researcher Danielle Fagnani has taught the class for two years. After studying small molecules for her doctoral research, she is now focusing on the much larger polymers. After beginning her postdoctoral fellowship in July 2018, Fagnani began teaching the sustainable polymers course at the end of the same month.
“My teaching of this course and my postdoctoral research have definitely gone hand-in-hand. Each has informed the other,” Fagnani said. “I was familiar with most of the course topics as a chemist, but I wasn’t necessarily a sustainable polymer expert when I started, so I taught myself the content first.
“For my research, I’m looking for chemical methods to repurpose commodity polymers, so understanding recycling statistics and why they’re so low is something important to my research and something I can discuss in the course as well.”
At the end of the class, the students put into action skills they learned throughout the course—and in doing so, also learn video editing and communication skills by creating stop-motion videos about polymers.
“These presentation and communication skills are applicable outside of this course , the experiences are useful for our students in whatever they choose to do,” Fagnani said.
McNeil and Fagnani want the class to travel beyond U-M’s campus. They would like to make it accessible to high school teachers as well. The hope, the researchers say, is to develop ways parts of the class can be used in a standard high school classroom so that a broader audience of students can experience what the field of chemistry has to offer.
“There’s a huge thirst from the younger generations to better understand sustainability and how they can play a role in it. Our course gives them the polymer science perspective of sustainability and hopefully the tools they need to make a difference in that area in the future,” McNeil said. “We have had several students say that they wanted to do this now for their career; that is, they want to go to college to study chemistry and sustainable materials.”