Sustainable development and green chemistry in chemistry education

Ingo Eilks a and Franz Rauch b
aUniversity of Bremen, Germany. E-mail:
bAlpe-Adria-University, Klagenfurt, Austria. E-mail:

Received 19th March 2012 , Accepted 19th March 2012
Sustainable development is one of the most frequently used terms in today's political debate. Our current understanding of sustainable development as a regulatory idea was basically defined by the Agenda 21: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As a consequence, all our individual and political actions should be reflected in the light of their societal, economical and ecological sustainability. This claim concerns every field of society, among them particularly chemistry and chemistry education. Both fields should reflect on how chemistry and chemistry education can contribute to more sustainability in our society, today and in future.

One of chemistry's contributions to meeting the challenge of more sustainability in the development of our society is the promotion of a sustainable chemistry, in research and industrial production. Under the name of green chemistry (or in Europe also sustainable chemistry) a lot of effort has been undertaken to make future chemistry less poisonous and less hazardous. Green chemistry aims at making chemistry more energy efficient, at reducing waste disposal, and/or producing innovative products with less consumption of natural resources. Alternative processes and reaction pathways are designed, new materials and products are developed contributing to meet our needs today, but with taking more care of the interests of future generations.

Modern chemistry education is challenged by both the political aim of a sustainable development of our society in general as well from the call for green chemistry strategies in chemical research and industry in particular. School chemistry education should promote competencies of the young generation to become scientifically literate. This means chemistry education has to contribute to making students capable of actively participating in society. Competencies need to be promoted to allow students to understand and participate in societal debate about applications of chemistry and technology. One prerequisite is that students should achieve substantial chemistry knowledge in the context of respective sustainability issues to understand the underlying developments, alternatives and dilemmas. But, subject matter knowledge will not be enough. The students as future citizens also need to learn how societal debate about questions related to chemistry, industry and the environment functions as well as develop skills to involve themselves together with others in the societal processes of democratic decision making.

But this is only one side of the coin. Society can only decide about alternatives for raising sustainability in chemistry related developments and businesses if there are any. Future chemists and chemical engineers need to learn what a more resource efficient and environmentally friendly chemistry for the future might look alike. That means the ideas of a green chemistry should become part of their training from the very start. Students of chemistry programs at university should be guided to develop a deep consciousness of the importance of sustainability strategies in chemistry research and industry, and also to develop knowledge and skills to operate them.

This themed issue on “sustainable development and green chemistry in chemistry education” therefore focuses on more sustainable chemistry in secondary as well as in tertiary education. It starts with two perspective papers summing up the state of the art in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in secondary school chemistry as well as practices related to the ideas of green chemistry in higher education. Both perspectives will be illustrated by a kaleidoscope of examples from both areas in the other contributions to this issue. Three examples will provide ideas of how to include ESD in the secondary chemistry curriculum. Fields of study are using environmental issues as a context for chemistry education, using the debate about plastics as a socio-scientific issue for chemistry education, or making the analysis of the environmental impact of chemical synthesis a part of an organic chemistry course in upper secondary schools. Another set of papers will reflect the role of sustainability issues and green chemistry in higher education. These papers focus on both changing the curricula towards embedding explicit lessons on sustainable development in higher chemistry and chemical engineering education, but also on how to put the principles of green chemistry into practice in higher chemistry teaching. The latter step can be achieved, for example, by incorporating alternative reagents or making technical problems from the sustainability debate a context for higher chemistry learning.

Since 2005 we have been living in the UN World Decade of an Education for Sustainable Development which will end in 2014. This current issue highlights that sustainability issues as part of this development already have increasingly become a prominent factor in contemporary chemistry education – both on secondary and tertiary levels. The examples described in this current issue document how promising the combination of chemistry education and learning about sustainable development can be. The ground for a broader application seems to be prepared. Anyhow, working on a sustainable future is an ongoing process. Concerning this, we hope that this themed issue will inform the discussion and will help to strengthen and motivate chemistry education's contribution to a more sustainable future.

This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2012