Not Just an Academic Exercise: Systems Thinking Applied to Designing Safer Alternatives


For the last seven years, an interdisciplinary course known as Greener Solutions, offered by the University of California, Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, has brought together graduate students in chemistry, environmental health, and engineering to understand each other’s disciplines, and to work together to develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals and manufacturing processes. Through the course, interdisciplinary teams of UC Berkeley students have worked with partner organizations to identify safer alternatives to chemicals of concern, including investigating safer preservatives in personal care products, nonfluorinated durable water-repellant coatings for outerwear, and safer cross-linkers to replace formaldehyde in permanent press textiles and diisocyanates in spray polyurethane foam insulation. Students undertake a bioinspired design process and then assess the potential health and environmental hazards associated with each of their proposed alternatives relative to hazards of the current chemistries. The students generate a focused alternatives assessment that considers technical performance, relative hazard and exposure potential, and feasibility, creating an “opportunity map” for the partner company and, ideally, the industry sector as a whole. The Greener Solutions model for interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning is training a new generation of chemists and engineers in a systems approach to design: one that more fully considers the health and environmental implications of chemical and material choices. An adaptation of the Greener Solutions course model to serve undergraduate civil engineering students at University of Victoria, B.C. demonstrates how the course elements can serve a different subject matter and instructional level.

Publication date: 
September 16, 2019
Publication type: 
Journal Article
Schwarzman, M. R., & Buckley, H. L. (2019). Not Just an Academic Exercise: Systems Thinking Applied to Designing Safer Alternatives. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(12), 2984–2992.