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Vol. 33 No. 4
July-August 2011

Distance Learning in Green Chemistry

A Distance Education Program in Green Chemistry has been developed through the collaborative efforts of the University of Oregon, Chulalongkorn University, the Thai Distance Learning Foundation, and the Chemical Society of Thailand. This program takes advantage of live internet and satellite-based video-conference technologies as well as web-based resources, bringing instructional materials to teachers at every high school in Thailand. In preparing and producing this program, its creators learned numerous scientific and cultural lessons.

In 1996, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s accession to the throne, the Thai Distance Learning Foundation was established with the goal of providing education to every child in the country, including those in remote areas where teachers and resources are scarce.1 The Distance Learning Foundation brings live lessons from Wang Klaikangwon School in Hua Hin to schools throughout Thailand through distance learning equipment, installed without charge by the Royal Thai Army, and toll-free telephone lines, provided by the Telephone Organization of Thailand. Twelve channels carry live broadcasts directed to grades 1–12 at some 13 000 schools throughout Thailand. An additional three channels carry vocational, language training, international documentaries, and technical college educational content. Live broadcasts are also provided asynchronously via satellite, conventional, and internet broadcasts throughout Southeast Asia, reaching Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and southern China.1

The U.S.–Thai Distance Learning Organization, a nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon, serves as the official U.S. affiliate of the Distance Learning Foundation. With the mission of fostering cultural and economic cooperation and facilitating the exchange of information and learning between Thailand and U.S. educational organizations and leaders, the Distance Learning Organization acts as a liaison between the Distance Learning Foundation, the Thai Grand Chamberlain, the Thai Consulate (in Los Angeles, California), the Thai Embassy (in Washington, D.C.), and U.S. collaborators.

During an official state visit in July 2006 to the University of Oregon by Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, a new distance learning program was announced. A collaboration between the University of Oregon, the Distance Learning Organization, and Distance Learning Foundation, the program utilizes green chemistry as a tool for the introduction of essential chemistry fundamentals. An introductory lesson for the Green Chemistry Program was presented at this time, carried via live satellite links to television channels throughout Thailand and neighboring countries, reaching a potential audience of around 60 million.

The Green Chemistry Program

Supawan Tantayanon leads a small-scale organic chemistry workshop, Bangkok, 2007.

The Green Chemistry Program used new approaches to teaching the fundamentals of chemistry, emphasizing the importance of small, group discussions and the benefits of peer-led team learning and guided inquiry. Green chemistry is particularly helpful for introducing new pedagogies because it introduces new ways of thinking about chemical concepts within the context of “real life” issues. This connection furthers one of the central tenets of the Distance Learning Foundation, His Majesty the King’s educational policy of อบรมบ่มนิสัย (“ob rom bom nisai”): the teaching and training of a child to be good, honest, and economically sufficient. In addition, given its intrinsic safety, green chemistry allows the introduction (or reintroduction) of experiments and demonstrations in settings for which safety and cost issues prohibit traditional chemical experimentation, allowing science to “come to life” in the lab.

In February 2007, a second green chemistry lesson was presented by Kenneth Doxsee and Julie Haack, followed by a laboratory workshop conducted by Supawan Tantayanon. The presentation focused on teaching methodologies for general chemistry and the 12 principles of green chemistry.2 In the workshop, Tantayanon used the Small-Lab Kit3 she designed to illustrate several principles of green chemistry, including the prevention of waste, energy efficiency, and minimization of the potential for accidents. During this lesson, teachers were surveyed regarding issues of particular interest, importance, and/or relevance to their students and teaching environments. Virtually all of the participants identified the connection to real-life issues and the ability to carry out experimentation safely, with available materials, and at low cost, as key issues.

Thai teachers performing a green chemistry
experiment, Bangkok, 2010.

Building from this session and the information gained through the survey, a third green chemistry lesson was presented in December 2007, timed to coincide as closely as possible with the 80th birthday celebration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of his strong commitment to education. In this lesson, an experiment from a typical laboratory manual was used as a platform for discussion of how one could determine if a chemical reaction was “good” or “bad.” The key message of this lesson was that, by systematically working through various ways of thinking about this issue, students may be led to ask questions that address the fundamentals of chemistry. Rather than being told that sometimes abstruse concepts such as balancing chemical equations, stoichiometry, and the mole are important, students can find themselves asking to be taught these concepts.

Rather than being told that sometimes abstruse concepts . . . are important, students can find themselves asking to be taught these concepts.

Through these initial explorations of the concepts of green chemistry, we learned several important lessons regarding geographic, language, and cultural barriers to the utilization of distance learning technology, beginning with the very concept of “green chemistry” itself. While modern web-based resources have made it easy to translate words and phrases into other languages, these resources, in general, do not take into account cultural nuances or interpretations. For example, one can easily be led by web translation services to conclude that ลาก่อน (“la korn”) is the proper way to say “goodbye” when parting company. It may indeed be correct, but only if one will never see the person again; it is more likely that one would prefer to say สวัสดี (“sawatdee”). Initial translation of “green chemistry” into Thai proved entirely inappropriate, representing at best a baffling juxtaposition of the science of chemistry and the color green, which does not, in the Thai language, convey any sense of environmentalism, safety, or any nuance other than the simple color. (Interestingly, issues with the term “green” arise in other contexts as well—e.g., the adjective “green” conveys a rather more extreme sense of environmentalism in Europe than in the USA.)

After numerous discussions about Thai terms that could convey the desired nuance, such as “clean chemistry,” “safe chemistry,” or “sustainable chemistry,” in the end, the solution was simple. When translating from English to Thai, the program developers simply left the words “green chemistry” in English, providing an instant “call-out” and eliciting in the listeners the response, “Oh, there are those English words that mean we are talking about chemistry that is safe for health and the environment.” Perhaps the common use in the United States of the Russian term “glasnost” rather than the comparatively nuance-free translation “openness” during the Gorbachev era is a similar example of an instance where “non-translation” represents the best way of effecting a translation.

The desire to engage students in the learning process through active discussion and questioning represented a second cultural barrier because Thai students, in general, believe it is disrespectful to ask questions of a teacher. Two approaches helped to overcome this obstacle. Simplest and perhaps most effective was the awarding of small prizes (e.g., University of Oregon lapel pins) to participants who asked questions. Also effective was a brief but frank discussion of this cross-cultural issue, in which we noted that in the United States it can be considered disrespectful—a sign of lack of attention or engagement—not to ask questions of a speaker! In the end, the ability to formulate questions succinctly and clearly, and simply to ask them, may be one of the most valuable lessons the program imparts. Perhaps these students—the ones who ask questions instead of simply writing down what they are told—will be the ones to solve the problems facing our world today.

Workshop participants receive completion certificates in Bangkok, 2010.

With this background, we turned our attention to creating new age-appropriate laboratory materials. Meetings with Thai teachers suggested that Thai and U.S. expectations for high school chemistry course content were similar. In preparing materials for the workshops, we chose to focus on experiments with direct relevance to environmental issues, noting that while this does not per se represent an essential feature of green chemistry, maintaining a more concrete connection to intuitively relevant material seemed wise for the high school grade levels. Experiments were developed in collaboration with Dr. Jorge Ibañez and his colleagues in the Mexican Institute for Microscale and Green Chemistry at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, who had recently authored a definitive textbook and laboratory guide for environmental chemistry.4 Selected experiments from this text, complemented by others adapted from the literature and/or developed collaboratively by Drs. Ibañez and Doxsee, were evaluated for their relevance to teaching relevant chemical topics, their illustration of multiple green chemical principles, and their reliability and reproducibility in the hands of inexperienced students. Final experiments were selected with consideration of the availability of the required materials in Thailand.

With experimental materials in hand, a series of six 2.5-hour workshops was scheduled at the rate of roughly one every two weeks from January through March 2010. Two-way audio and video via IP videoconferencing brought live coverage of presentations made in the University of Oregon’s Media Services Center to two primary sites in Thailand: Bangkok and Hua Hin. Participants at these two sites, who were visible to the Oregon presenters through live video, interacted with the presenters, asking and answering questions and discussing content. One-way audio and video was brought through internet protocols to local and regional sites serving about 3000 Thai high schools. During the lessons, live translation was complemented by extended explanations in Thai, helping to bridge cultural differences between Thailand and the United States and ensuring real understanding of the curricular materials and of green chemistry in general.

As each experimental session began, issues of chemical safety were discussed. In practice, this proved to be a particularly important and relevant part of the program, though not for the most obvious reasons. The experimental procedures, designed to highlight green chemical concepts, were for the most part risk free. (Indeed, they were demonstrated from the confines of an unventilated video production booth.) Rather than dogmatically insisting on protective gear even when it was not necessary (e.g., when constructing a battery from aluminum foil, salt water, paper toweling, and charcoal)5 the instructors honestly appraised each situation and recommended appropriate safety precautions. In so doing, we avoided contributing to the “chemophobia” that is instilled by insisting that all chemical experimentation is dangerous and simultaneously highlighted a central lesson of green chemistry regarding the assessment rather than assumption of risk. Through this thoughtfulness, we were able to engage participants in the proper use of protective gear in those few cases where it was indeed called for.

Despite some trepidation about supervision of active laboratory experimentation from some 12 000 kilometers away, the two-way video link and effective use of mobile cameras at the Thailand sites provided an experience for the instructor and students that was remarkably similar to onsite supervision. With literally “over-the-shoulder” views of experiments in progress and face-to-face conversations with participants, real-time corrections and suggestions occurred as readily as if all were present in the same laboratory. When difficulties were experienced in preparing a battery from copper and aluminum coins,6 for example, the instructors noted that an inadvertent short circuit had been formed, a problem that was quickly remedied.

Instructor Surapong Namnai of the Wang Klaikangwon School teaching his chemistry class in Hua Hin and, via two-way video communication, a class in Mae Hong Sorn Province in the Northern part of Thailand.

Not surprisingly, things did not always proceed as planned. These occasions were viewed as opportunities for discussion and engagement with the participants about possible reasons for deviations from expectations. In the midst of one discussion about the apparent failure of a photocell preparation,7 the lights suddenly went out at the Hua Hin site. After some frantic maneuvering by the technical staff, the Hua Hin site reappeared, with smiling participants rejoicing about the success of their photocell—they had realized that the photocurrent created when they illuminated their photocell with a light bulb had been masked by the fluorescent lights of the classroom, so they simply turned off those lights, dropping from on-line visibility but allowing the successful measurement of a very respectable photocurrent. More than simply an amusing anecdote, this event highlights an additional great power of green chemical experimentation: when the materials are intrinsically safe, curiosity-driven independent investigation is both tolerable and safe.

Following the conclusion of each experiment, interesting observations were discussed and relevant data analyses were carried out, often using participant-generated data, helping to ensure that the teacher participants were armed with the necessary information and background to transition the experiment to their own teaching. Finally, each experiment culminated in a discussion of the green principles viewed as relevant to the experiment. This discussion proved particularly valuable to both the participants—who were able to contribute intellectually to the workshops—and to the instructors, who were able to assess the extent of participant engagement in the workshops.

Outcomes

While the complexity of the project, involving numerous partners both in Thailand and the USA, led to occasional delays, the green chemistry workshop series was successfully presented from January through March 2010. The project culminated in the awarding of certificates to participants at the Bangkok and Hua Hin sites.

Prior to the final workshop, one of the teacher participants, Mr. Surapong Namnai, an instructor at the Wang Klaikungwon School, taught a special class session focused on one of the experiments, carried live to Ratchaprachanukrao 21 School in Mae Hong Sorn Province in the Northern part of Thailand. This represented the first step in transmitting information from the workshops to the next generation of Thai science students.

As our understanding of the cultural similarities and differences between the two countries has continued to grow, we anticipate the development and presentation of additional green chemistry lessons, as well as inauguration of a complementary physics and mathematics program. In the longer term, it is hoped that these programs will lead not only to the successful training of Thai teachers and their students, but to the continued development of scientific, educational, and personal connections between the countries and the many individuals, institutions, and organizations responsible for them.

References

  1. K. Vajarodaya, “Twelth Anniversary of the Distance Learning Foundation: Free and Open Low-Cost Distance Education via Satellite and Internet, Klaikangwon Model,” Fourth International Conference on eLearning for Knowledge-Based Society, 18–19 November 2007, Bangkok, Thailand. Other key partners for the DLF within Thailand have included the Telecommunications Association of Thailand, the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology, the Thailand Ministry of Education, Advance Vision Systems Co., Ltd., Telesat Corporation Co., Ltd., and Cisco Systems (Thailand), Inc.
  2. P.T. Anastas, J.C. Warner. Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press, New York (2000).
  3. S. Tantayanon, “Small-Scale Laboratories: Organic Chemistry at University Level,” www.unesco.org/science/doc/Organi_chem_220709_FINAL.pdf (accessed 15 November 2010).
  4. J.G. Ibanez, M. Hernandez-Esparza, C. Doria-Serrano, A. Fregoso-Infante, M.M. Singh. Environmental Chemistry: Microscale Laboratory Experiments. Springer, New York (2007).
  5. M. Tamez, J.H. Yu. J. Chem. Ed. 84, 1936A-1936B (2007), modified by the Centro Mexicano de Quimica Verde y Microescala, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. “Local flavor” was added at a workshop in Mexico by replacing the activated carbon with carbon in the form of a tortilla that was intentionally over-cooked, burning it.
  6. I. Otsuki. Bussitsu no Henka (Matter and Change). Hyoronsha, Tokyo (1973) (ISBN/ASIN:4566020045). See also www.micrecol.de/microscalingOginoE.html (accessed 11 November 2010). This demonstration is particularly notable in that the functional battery produced from Japanese one yen (aluminum) and ten yen (copper) coins has the cathode and anode identified by the kanji characters for one (–) and ten (+).
  7. J.G. Ibanez, et al. J. Chem. Educ., Articles ASAP 8 April 2011; doi:10.1021/ed100116h

This paper is based on a lecture presented at the 3rd International IUPAC Conference on Green Chemistry (ICGC-3), Ottawa, Canada, 15–18 August 2010. [Other papers presented at ICGC-3 are published in the July 2011 issue of IUPAC journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Supawan Tantayanon <supawan.t@chula.ac.th> and Duangamol Nuntasri are with the Green Chemistry Research Lab, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. Kenneth M. Doxsee <doxsee@uoregon.edu> and John C. (Jack) Niedbala are with the Department of Chemistry, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA.

 


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