Currently, the world is facing climate change, environmental burden, and health aspects caused, among others, by chemical substances spread by humans. In order to preserve or even improve the Earth’s habitat for future generations, the development and use of sustainable technologies are necessary. Additionally, every individual must have knowledge and skills to be able to act in an informed sustainable and responsible way. Neither of these can be achieved without science education that provides appropriate learning opportunities. This paper gives insight into the project SpottingScience whose digital learning environments focus on green chemistry. The learning environments are accessible via QR-Codes in public space at the Campus of the University of Vienna. One can follow the content presented via texts and graphics in a linear way or use provided links to get further information. SpottingScience offers the opportunity for passers-by and secondary school students to get a general idea of green chemistry and its significance for everyday life. We use menthol, a well-known ingredient in several everyday products, as an example to unfold chemical backgrounds, to highlight the necessity to create new and environment-friendly production processes, and to provide an impetus to reflect on one’s own actions while using everyday products.
The initial situation that led us to start the project described in this article is the following. Chemical substances produced and spread by humans are causing global threats such as climate change, environmental burden, and health aspects. Chemical industry, chemical research and development, as well as all citizens, can work against these global hazards by acting in an informed and responsible way. Zuin et al. state that “we are now confronted with an increasing shortage of resources on the one hand and increasing pollution of the planet on the other, not only by undesired emissions but also by desired emissions, i.e., the products themselves” (2021, p. 1595). This makes clear the urgency to support as many people as possible to develop an awareness for the vital necessity of saving the resources of our planet and acting sustainably in everyday life. When it comes to products we want to use, every individual must decide which ones to use and which ones cause “unwanted ‘side’ effects we accept or do not accept” (Zuin et al. 2021, p. 1594). For citizens, knowledge about products with problematic substances and manufacturing processes can help to reconsider or avoid their use. In this context, Mammino says that fostering informed and sustainable ways of handling products of any kind relies solely on education (2015, p. 2). In order to have an impact here, it is particularly important to provide information in such a way that it may influence people’s behavior (ibid).
Chemistry education in school can be one such leverage point. In the course of chemistry education, young people can gain insight into the role chemical industry and research plays in society by implementing principles of green chemistry to facilitate sustainable development. This must go hand in hand with developing an awareness of the impact that one’s own behavior has. In addition to formal education, educational opportunities with low threshold in public space can make a relevant contribution by informing the general public and raising awareness to use all kinds of products in a responsible way. This is where our SpottingScience project comes in.
SpottingScience (www.spottingscience.com) is designed to provide learning opportunities about interesting and relevant chemical aspects in public space. Using their smart phone, everyone is invited to scan QR-Codes provided at so called ScienceSpots and get involved. The digital learning environments can be visited by passers-by or by school classes and can be seen as elements of science communication (Davies & Horst 2016) as well as a pedagogical approach to promote public understanding of science (Seakins & Hobson 2017).
In the following, we first introduce the term Green Chemistry. Subsequently, the project SpottingScience and how it may contribute to students’ and citizens’ understanding and appreciation of the objectives of green chemistry is described.
Green Chemistry – what it is and what goals are pursued with it
In their quest for higher agricultural yields, the creation of commercial products and consumer goods and the like, humans have repeatedly harmed our planet and its inhabitants by the use of chemicals and their production. Long-term negative effects on the environment have been observed since the 20th century. Therefore, chemical industry and research were faced with the challenge to find and produce chemicals that yield similar results and have a lesser impact on the environment. Efforts and progress in research and development show that chemistry holds the key to a responsible handling of the environment and natural resources. A modern industrial society can only develop sustainably through innovations in the field of chemistry (Burmeister & Eilks 2012; Burmeister et al. 2011).
In this sense, Green Chemistry – a term first coined by Paul Anastas in 1991 – can be seen as a logical progression from output-focused industrial chemistry to pollution-prevention initiatives on several levels. Contrary to traditional, output-focused approaches, green chemistry aims to lessen the environmental impact of “all the stages of the ‘life’ of a substance or a material: production, utilization and final disposal” (Mammino 2015, p. 1). Whilst it is the role of chemistry research and the chemical industry to “design […] inherently safer substances and less-polluting manufacturing processes, […] the rest of the life of substances and materials is in the hands of those who use them” (ibid). In other words, both industry and consumers are responsible for complying with the principles of green chemistry. Whereas the industry is responsible for the security of production processes and products, consumers must use and dispose of the utilised products in a thoughtful and sustainable way.
The 12 principles of green chemistry published by Anastas & Warner (1998) are widely recognised and became generally accepted guidelines for the contemporary understanding of green chemistry, which has been implemented by both research and industry worldwide (Rauch 2015). Figure 1 illustrates the 12 principles of green chemistry and provides a comprehensible definition.
Nowadays, green chemistry is a buzzword connected with far-reaching hopes to find and implement ways and procedures to help keep our planet liveable. The importance of a Green and Sustainable Chemistry was recently emphasised in the Global Chemicals Outlook II (GCO II 2019) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report calls for a substantial integration of this changed perspective into education and training in chemistry from school to university as Green and Sustainable Chemistry Education (Zowada et al. 2020). Underpinning this, Armstrong and colleagues state that “for green chemistry to be a component of societal practice, we need to build a knowledgeable green chemistry community comprised of professionals, teachers, students, and the public” (Armstrong et al. 2018, p. 66).
Green Chemistry in Austria
In order to make green chemistry visible in Austria, the Platform Green Chemistry was founded by the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK), in close cooperation with the Umweltbundesamt GmbH on June 24, 2020. The Platform aims to make green chemistry visible as a comprehensive, integrative solution approach, and to support its implementation (Plattform Grüne Chemie 2021). The Platform Green Chemistry is an operational body that develops the Austrian national green chemistry work program and promotes its implementation. It also serves to advise the climate protection minister. Its members are experts and interested persons from the groups of science, teaching, business, consumer and environmental protection-oriented NGOs and administration. This broad spectrum of representatives constitutes a formally established expert group in which discussion and decision topics are prepared by working groups and voted on in plenary sessions. Where necessary, external expertise is also consulted.
There are already numerous efforts in schools and universities to address selected topics of environmental protection und green chemistry. For the future, however, one aim is to intensify the debate on aspects of green chemistry and to raise awareness of its importance among as many people as possible (Grüne Chemie in Österreich 2021). Another of the goals of the Platform Green Chemistry is to specifically anchor green chemistry in the three educational sectors, i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary. Therefore, projects in the field of education range from early contact with the idea of sustainable chemistry in elementary schools to school experiments which focus on green chemistry topics to establishing targeted teaching specialisations, including separate courses of study on green chemistry in the Austrian university landscape. Recently a master’s programme “Green Chemistry” started as a jointly established programme between the Technical University Vienna, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna and the University of Vienna. The SpottingScience project, introduced in this paper, has set out to meet some of the mentioned requirements for both school and public.
SpottingScience – a digital learning environment in public space
SpottingScience aims to shed light on scientific phenomena and processes that occur in or influence people’s everyday life. The project is based on the idea of an educational chemistry trail by Peter Borrows in the UK (Borrows 1984, 2006). With the Pimlico Trail, he developed a chemistry trail around his school for the first time. The idea was taken up by Spitzer and Gröger in the Chem-Tracking project as an educational trail and geocache (2014). In contrast to Borrows, the information boards have been replaced by QR-Codes connected with the Chem-Tracking project website where the relevant information is provided. This enables much more flexibility with regard to the information offered to the users. Seasonally limited topics such as the color of the leaves or the contents of woodruff could easily be temporarily integrated into the path. The follow-up project SpottingScience is designed to provide information on chemical phenomena as well as on various other scientific phenomena to students and passers-by in public space.
SpottingScience does not only aim at conveying scientific content to the public and to students; there is a second focus on teacher education. Pre-service chemistry teachers develop content in seminars or as part of their bachelor’s thesis. Working on the SpottingScience project opens several learning opportunities for pre-service chemistry teachers: they learn scientific content; they learn that it is important to consider prior knowledge of the target group; they learn how to handle media, discuss facts or models and graphic representations they designed with regard to their technical correctness and appropriateness for the target group.
SpottingScience is already present in two Austrian cities, Vienna and Graz, in the form of ScienceSpots in public spaces. In Vienna, the focus is set on green chemistry. The Viennese ScienceSpots are located at the Campus of the University of Vienna. The Campus is a freely accessible area consisting of several interconnected courtyards with a park-like structure, playgrounds for children, lawns, a supermarket and restaurants. Wooden posts with QR-Codes (Figure 2) are installed on this campus. When the QR-Codes are scanned by students or interested passers-by with a smartphone, they are led to the respective SpottingScience website. Since the ScienceSpots are accessible from different directions, they must be readable and understandable independently of each other. To meet this challenge, the contents of the ScienceSpots are interlinked.
As the campus is used by a wide variety of people, potential users of the SpottingScience ScienceSpots are very diverse and not expected to have a particular background in chemistry. In order to provide a captivating access for passers-by and secondary students, we decided to introduce green chemistry by using a chemical substance which can be found in several everyday products, menthol.
Menthol as an example to introduce Green Chemistry
Along with vanilla and citrus flavouring, menthol is one of the most frequently used flavouring substances. Owing to its uniquely fresh taste and smell, menthol is perhaps the world’s most popular organic compound, added to many daily products such as toothpaste, shower gel, perfume, or cooling ointment. It is also a popular ingredient used medicinally in ointments, cough drops, and nasal inhalers. The estimated worldwide annual demand is 30.000 to 32.000 tons (Kamatou et al. 2013).
Menthol can be extracted from natural sources such as peppermint oil. However, for the past few decades, this procedure has not been able to keep up with the ever-increasing global demand. This is why menthol is produced synthetically on a large scale. About forty percent of the needed menthol is synthesised industrially from chemicals such as citronellal. For the synthesis, heavy metals are used as catalysts, which means that “the process is expensive and harmful to [the] environment, and [the heavy metals] can contaminate the product” (ERC 2018). However, there are no official figures on the amounts of contamination. To meet the goals of green chemistry, researchers strive for simpler and even more sustainable synthesis pathways that dispenses with the use of heavy metal catalysts and at the same time reduces the number of intermediate steps. Recently, the chemist Nuno Maulide and his group uncovered a reaction that allows producing menthol without using heavy metal catalysts in the production route. Their ERC-funded Proof of Concept Project NEUTRAMENTH laid first steps towards a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach to menthol synthesis as an alternative to current industrial production (ERC 2018).
Menthol and its synthesis taking Green Chemistry principles into account
Synthetic chemistry provides fragrances and aromas for many everyday products. Menthol is one of those. Menthol exists in two enantiomeric forms, with (−)-menthol being the most prevalent stereoisomer (Figure 3). At room temperature, it is a crystalline substance (Figure 4) that melts slightly above this temperature.
The largest synthetic commercial production line, developed at BASF SE, is based on a series of chemical reactions which turn bulk chemicals into menthol. The process involves the late-stage transformation of citronellal into isopulegol, which is then converted into menthol (Figure 5). Despite being highly efficient, the process is expensive and relies on heavy metal catalysts for key steps such as the conversion of isopulegol to menthol. The involvement of heavy metal catalysts can potentially result in contamination of the product and is inextricably connected to environmental and health concerns.
Solving the ‘menthol problem’ and beyond – a sustainable, one-step, metal-free menthol synthesis
The ERC-funded NEUTRAMENTH project of the Maulide group at the University of Vienna has built on the serendipitous finding (in the context of the ERC Consolidator Grant VINCAT) that fragrant compounds (terpenes) such as citronellal can be transformed into substances like menthol in a single step without using toxic heavy metal catalysts. NEUTRAMENTH set out to further optimise the process to demonstrate its technical feasibility and implementation.
The fundamental principle of this work is ‘redox-neutrality’ which couples oxidation and reduction reactions into the same step. Through this technique molecules can be oxidised using another part of the same molecule and hereby avoids external additives which generate wasteful by-products. During NEUTRAMENTH, the technique was shown to successfully furnish menthol with appreciable, but not yet optimal, selectivity in a single operation from citronellal at laboratory (gram) scale. Crucially, the environmentally friendly nature of the process was demonstrated.
The researchers furthermore found that modifying this technique and applying it to new classes of valuable terpenes opened up significant new possibilities. Indeed, the use of this technology to make other terpenes and even prepare novel substances has very high potential, and the researchers are currently teaming up with an international industry partner to further develop these concepts. These refreshing innovations could hence herald a revolution in future offerings for our taste and smell.
Keeping the given information in mind, we decided to use menthol as an example to make the relevance and usefulness of the concept of green chemistry accessible to a broad audience from the non-scientific sector. The challenge is now to decide what information should be provided and how it can be made available in the SpottingScience learning environment. To date, we have developed three interlinked ScienceSpots to answer the questions “What is green chemistry and what are its aims?”, “What is so special about menthol that it is in so many everyday products?” and “Where does menthol come from and what does it have to do with green chemistry?” After illustrating the 12 principles of green chemistry, the omnipresence of menthol in everyday life is highlighted and a step-by-step explanation of its synthesis follows. Different models are used to show how chemical research can contribute to protect our environment and health.
Designing the ScienceSpots
To develop the learning environments, we build on the Model of Educational Reconstruction (Duit et al. 2012) by first clarifying the subject-specific basics. The chemical background includes knowledge about green chemistry in general as well as specific knowledge about the properties, sources and production routes of menthol, as presented above. The second step was to gain information about the potential visitors’ (secondary school students and passers-by) perspectives about green chemistry. This is of course a challenge in terms of a publicly accessible learning opportunity. In order to gain an impression about the potential users’ possibly existing associations, prior knowledge and beliefs about green chemistry, we conducted a short survey using a mind-map format. Building on this and in accordance with the Model of Educational Reconstruction, we started to develop the learning environments based on the clarification of the chemical content and potential visitors’ perspectives.
To gain insight into the potential visitors’ perspectives about the topic, we surveyed 115 persons by asking them to write down their associations with the term Green Chemistry in the form of a mind-map in the course of 5 min. The sample consisted of 95 secondary school students (levels 9 to 12) and 20 passers-by of various age groups but unknown educational backgrounds. These respondents’ associations give us clues to potential visitors’ appropriate or less appropriate ideas about green chemistry which should be addressed, constituting a highly relevant basis for designing the SpottingScience learning environment.
The respondents noted down their associations as single words, complete sentences, or drawings on an A4 sheet with the central term “Green Chemistry”. In total, we could identify 661 associations. To analyse these associations, we applied the technique of inductive category formation following Mayring (2020). With this technique, the categories “are coming from the material itself, not from theoretical considerations” (Mayring 2014, p. 79). Thus, the findings should be as objective as possible “without bias owing to the preconceptions of the researcher” (ibid). In order to avoid distortions due to interpretations, the categories where formed as closely to the original wording on the mind-maps as possible. Notes that could not be clearly interpreted were assigned to the category “not assignable”. Applying this technique, 21 categories were formed inductively based on the material. Figure 6 shows the nature and frequency of the associations presented in form of a word cloud in which the size of the font corresponds to the frequency of mention.
Most of the associations can be assigned to the field of Environment (107) followed by associations in the field of Chemistry (81) (Figure 7). Examples for associations in the category Environment are “environmentally friendly chemistry”; “chemical reactions taking place in the environment”; “good for animals and plants”, and drawings of sun, plants, animals, and water. Associations in the category Chemistry can be divided into positive and negative ideas. Examples for positive associations in this category are “without artificially produced chemicals”; “good/clean chemistry”; “chemistry with green substances”; “in contrast to red chemistry, which is dangerous”; “no aromatic compounds”. Examples for negative associations are “experiments with poisons”; “greenwashing to get better sales or lull sceptics into a sense of security”; “order from the pharmaceutical industry to improve the image”. And there are also mentions of associations like “organic chemistry” or “biochemistry” which seem to be rather neutral.
Seventy six associations were assigned to the category Nature, followed by 63 assigned to the category Sustainability. Examples for associations in the category Nature are “producing substances that are good for nature”; “working in forests”; “experiments with things from nature”; “elements/atoms occurring in nature”; “chemical processes that take place in plants (Photosynthesis)”. Examples for associations in the category Sustainability are “Hydrogen from renewable sources”; “green is also sustainable”; “sustainable handling of chemicals”.
Forty six associations could not be clearly interpreted, and therefore they were put into the category Not assignable. Some examples for associations we put into this category are “periodic system”; “oxidation/reduction”; “protests/normality”; “everything in the green”; “nuclear weapons”; “waste incineration”; “soil substances”; “no animal experiments”.
Regarding the topic of this article, associations that can be assigned to individual principles of green chemistry are particularly interesting. Altogether, 40 mentions could be identified that can be assigned to the principles of green chemistry. These mentions can be allocated to five different principles: prevention of waste (N = 24), atom economy (N = 1), less hazardous syntheses (N = 3), designing for degradation (N = 13), and safer chemistry for accident prevention (N = 1).
None of the respondents addressed the principles of green chemistry directly, but we can see that there are some appropriate associations with the term Green Chemistry. However, the respondents expressed several uninformed, sceptical and misleading associations when confronted with the term Green Chemistry. This is not surprising and provides arguments for designing opportunities to engage with the issue. In the sense of Educational Reconstruction, we take up aspects from the survey to confront inappropriate associations like the following: chemistry and chemical substances are harmful to people and environment; green chemistry is just a form of “green washing”; green chemistry is equal to reactions taking place in nature. On the other hand, we strive to support and further develop appropriate associations like: green chemistry is environmentally friendly; green chemistry stands for sustainable handling of chemicals etc.
With this in mind, SpottingScience aims at offering an opportunity for passers-by and students to get a general idea of what green chemistry is and what significance it can have for everyday life. In green chemistry, for example, synthetic processes should avoid using or generating substances toxic to humans and/or the environment (Anastas & Eghbali 2010). To exemplify this principle of green chemistry we use the context of menthol. In this way, we want to contribute to fostering informed and reflective decision-making about the purchase, use and disposal of consumer products. For example, it would be prudent to prefer products with menthol from natural sources as long as there is no large-scale industrial alternative to production lines with heavy metal catalysts.
Currently, we have designed three learning environments around the topic of green chemistry. One ScienceSpot deals with general information about green chemistry. To tie in with everyday experiences and as context to introduce the benefits of green chemistry, menthol, a very common ingredient in several everyday products, is used in the second and third ScienceSpot. In the following, we give a brief description of the structure and content of the smartphone-accessible ScienceSpots.
Insight into the ScienceSpots
Currently, the topic of green chemistry can be experienced at three ScienceSpots, two more are in development. Each of the three learning environments begins with a short animation that shows a cartoon person, called Chema, shortly after getting up in the morning. Chema takes a shower, brushes her teeth, gargles, and her mind begins to wander (Figure 8). Depending on the ScienceSpot, we see her contemplating different thoughts. This short animation draws the user’s attention to selected aspects of (green) chemistry, which can then be experienced at the respective ScienceSpot. The corresponding content is presented via texts and graphics – some of them animated. One can follow the content in a linear way or use provided links to get further information.
What is Green Chemistry and what are its aims?
ScienceSpot 1 focuses on the twelve principles of green chemistry. Chema reads through the ingredients of her toothpaste, shower gel, and mouthwash during her morning routine and realises that there is “chemistry” everywhere in these products, but concludes that it is probably not possible to live without “chemistry” either. This short animation represents a popular notion and serves as starting point to engage the users. In the following users can learn what chemistry is and what chemists deal with. Furthermore, the twelve principles of green chemistry are introduced and explained.
The aim of this ScienceSpot is to counteract the widespread negative image of chemistry and the notion that “chemistry” is something unnatural and harmful (Burmeister & Eilks 2012; Zuin et al. 2021). Passers-by can experience that chemical processes are omnipresent and used for a variety of beneficial applications. As Rauch states “Chemistry dramatically influences everything from the life of the individual to society as a whole” (Rauch 2015, p. 23). Innately, chemistry is neither good nor bad. But in the past, the main focus in the production of many consumer goods was on their functionality and less on health, ecological and social aspects in the overall value creation process. As a result of people’s growing awareness of the environment, health, and sustainability, other aspects such as a small ecological footprint and environmentally friendly and resource-saving production processes are becoming pivotal. This led Paul Anastas and John Warner to formulate twelve principles of green chemistry in 1998 (Anastas & Warner 1998). These principles are introduced at ScienceSpot 1, explained in more detail, and partly illustrated graphically.
What is so special about menthol that it is in so many everyday products?
ScienceSpot 2 focuses on menthol as an ingredient in several everyday products and on some of its remarkable properties. Chema examines the ingredients of her toothpaste, shower gel, and gargle solution, and wonders what is so special about the omnipresent menthol. Chema’s question is then answered by addressing the various properties of menthol (cooling effect, odour, taste, antibiotic effect). In addition to the substance-specific properties, the chemical structure of the menthol molecule is explained to highlight that only one of the many isomers, namely (−)-menthol, shows the outstanding properties and is therefore used in various products. Finally, a close-up photograph shows the substance menthol at room temperature, which is a solid, consisting of needle-shaped crystals (Figure 4). The question arises as to where menthol comes from.
As the expected visitors of the ScienceSpots are not chemistry experts, all of these facts are explained in layman’s terms, largely avoiding technical terms. If a technical term is essential, however, an explanation in everyday language is available to the reader and accessible via one click. The aim of this ScienceSpot is to raise awareness about the fact that chemical substances are ubiquitous and that it is worth to reflect about how we use consumer products.
Where does menthol come from and what does it have to do with green chemistry?
At the third ScienceSpot, Chema realises that several of her hygiene products and cosmetics contain menthol and wonders how so much menthol can be obtained. In response to this question, the extraction of menthol from the mint plant via steam distillation is explained followed by the assertion that the global demand for menthol cannot be met in this way. Therefore, menthol is also produced synthetically. A simplification of two conventional synthesis methods, namely the Haarmann–Raimer process and the BASF SE process, is presented in the form of short animations. Parts of the heavy metal catalysts used in these synthesis routes are also found in the finished product (Kümmerer 2017). Therefore, chemists are looking for synthesis pathways that work without heavy metal catalysts and thus comply with the principles of green chemistry. Such a new synthesis route was developed by the working group around Nuno Maulide. This innovative synthesis route that follows the principles of green chemistry is then explained. In other words, this ScienceSpot contrast different ways of obtaining the elusive menthol, provides an insight into the complexity of chemical syntheses, and presents successes in the development of resource-saving and environmentally and health friendlier production routes by applying the principles of green chemistry.
Summary and conclusions
This paper introduces the project SpottingScience along with its newly developed digital learning environments focussing on green chemistry. We use menthol, a well-known ingredient in several everyday products, as an example to elaborate on the complexity and problematic aspects of its chemical synthesis, to highlight the necessity to create new and environmentally friendly syntheses, and to encourage users to reflect about their utilisation of consumer products, that contain menthol. In order to have an impact on the consumer, it is essential to provide information in such a way that it may influence people’s behavior (Mammino 2015, p. 2). SpottingScience has set out to contribute to this. The relevance of this educational attempt to provide information about green chemistry with a low threshold in public space is underpinned by a survey providing insight into potential visitors’ associations with the term Green Chemistry. Here, respondents expressed several uninformed, sceptical and misleading associations, which were relevant for the choice and manner of information presented in the project’s ScienceSpots. In other words, SpottingScience wants to contribute to Rauch’s statement: “Learning about green chemistry and chemical research’s contributions to sustainable development can also offer a basis for a better understanding of various developments in wide-ranging fields. The strength of this approach is that it highlights the learning of the chemical principles disguised behind everyday processes and end products, thus making them more meaningful to students” (Rauch 2015, p. 21).
Currently, teaching concepts for upper secondary classes are under development. These teaching concepts actively integrate the ScienceSpots and thus support learning about green chemistry in school. Special focus will be laid on how learners can be supported in developing informed views and positions about using consumer products in a responsible and sustainable way. To assess the project’s usefulness and feasibility, an evaluation of both the ScienceSpots and the associated teaching concepts are planned. In addition, further ScienceSpots are being developed in the context of green chemistry.
Author contributions: All the authors have accepted responsibility for the entire content of this submitted manuscript and approved submission.
Research funding: None declared.
Conflict of interest statement: The authors declare no conflicts of interest regarding this article.
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