April Issue
April 02, 2014

Green chemistry: Science teachers give safety in the lab a new formula

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Science teacher Rose Hochmuth, a member of the Schalmont TA, shows how to operate a clock using wires and a potato.
Caption: Science teacher Rose Hochmuth, a member of the Schalmont TA, shows how to operate a clock using wires and a potato. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Using chemicals in high school labs is a proven way to teach students how substances interact, but the cost, danger factor and storage and disposal risks are prompting more educators to turn to green chemistry.

"Some chemicals have high hazard risks," said Rochester chemistry teacher Natasha Bell, a member of the Rochester Teachers Association. Some emit vapors when mixed with others, and many classrooms do not have ventilation. Some metals are toxic when they are vaporized.

Two students were burned, one severely, during an explosion in a chemistry lab earlier this year in a New York City high school. The explosion occurred when methanol was used as an accelerant to burn mineral salts.

The need for safety, both in experiments and in storing chemicals, is one reason Bell and her colleague, Juan Betancourt, have joined a growing number of NYSUT members who are bringing green chemistry into their test tubes and beakers. The alternative teaching method also saves money for districts, reduces pollution and simplifies disposal of ingredients.

"Educators who introduce green chemistry in their science curriculum demonstrate another example of an authentic assessment of learning," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health and safety. "In addition to classroom safety, students learn to value the use of nonhazardous materials, and will become a generation that reduces or eliminates hazardous waste, pollution and the costs associated with disposal."

Bell and Betancourt attended a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation green chemistry workshop at SUNY Brockport. They are among the 142 high school teachers from 100 districts who have attended the workshops, which are funded through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Workshops have been held on Long Island, New York City, the Hudson Valley, Capital Region, Syracuse and Rochester. Two more are planned for Binghamton and Buffalo, and a summer institute will be held at Siena College in Loudonville.

"We wanted to take an outreach approach in education. We wanted to give them solutions. Green chemistry is a solution," said Aida Potter, DEC environmental engineer and chief of the toxics reduction and chemistry section who secured the EPA funding to provide outreach services to teachers at no cost.

"Green chemistry practices offer teachers a way to reduce hazardous and high-risk chemicals that are used, stored and generated as waste by high school labs that result from traditional chemistry labwork," said Deborah Knight, DEC environmental program specialist.

Some of the workshop attendees received the DEC's help with an inventory of their school's chemicals and support for a full year with the new green program. DEC teams visit the schools to see how the teachers are doing in the classroom. Chemistry teachers in Rochester received the DEC's help in identifying unnecessary chemicals, along with ones that could be substituted for something more innocuous, said Bell, a union representative on her district's health and safety committee and a master health and safety trainer with the American Federation of Teachers, one of NYSUT's national affiliates.

Green chemistry is also helping students understand how recyclables work, said Bell. Her chemistry students are actually studying matter: how it behaves, what it is made of, and how it changes during chemical reactions. The corn used in some takeout containers, for example, can reduce to lactic acid in the decomposition reaction of corn polymer. Lactic acid can, in turn, be used as a cleaning product.

Green chemistry helps prevent pollution, and seeks to shift dependence from petroleum and to make products from renewable materials.

One green substitution for manganese IV oxide is the common potato. During a chemistry lab demonstrating oxidation reduction, Schalmont High School teacher Rose Hochmuth, a member of the Schalmont TA, pours hydrogen peroxide into a test tube containing a diced potato to create froth. She also uses a potato and wiring to run a clock. The potato, as an electrolyte, acts like a salt bridge for the ions to pass through.

Hochmuth and colleague Adam Labuda were awarded help from the DEC for a year after attending their workshop. "We got rid of about 50 percent of our chemicals," she said.

Now, she uses yeast, baking soda, baking powder and other products she can purchase in grocery stores. "It's a lot cheaper, definitely."

When it is necessary to use chemicals, she now uses less. Instead of filling up a beaker, for example, she will use drops from small plastic bottles. Instead of using a strip of metal for experiments, such as lead, magnesium, copper and zinc, she uses small pieces.

"I'm showing students that I'm just as careful with the environment as they ought to be, and that I'm just as concerned about their safety as they ought to be," Hochmuth said.


The state Department of Environmental Conservation began doing school outreach to reduce toxins in 2005. It used an EPA grant to coordinate mercury cleanouts and to conduct 20 mercury workshops in response to a state law prohibiting the use of elemental mercury in schools in New York.

In 2008, the agency started a school chemical management program, and cleaned out 1,500 pounds of waste chemicals in four schools in the Troy and Lansingburgh school districts alone.

To learn more about green chemistry and upcoming workshops for teachers, visit the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov.

The Green Chemistry Summer Institute takes place June 30-July 2 at Siena College, Loudonville. To register, visit www.siena.edu.