Monthly Archives: March 2014

“Trashed” the movie

For some years now, the Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) of the American Chemical Society (ACS) has sponsored an environmental documentary at many of the national meetings.  Often it has been possible to bring the filmmaker in for the event to do Q&A with the audience afterwards, but recently this wasn’t possible.  I was asked to be part of a panel discussion afterwards, and although I was not able to prepare much, I hoped that I would be able to wing it smoothly.

Trashed (not “Wasted” as it was accidentally identified by the organizer in our committee meeting at one point,) explores the environmental impacts of waste disposal.  Historically, most of human waste was organic matter and was biodegradable, so it could be buried and it would subsequently rot and decompose.  It did not disrupt nature’s cycle of building up (making living things) and breaking down (dispersing dead things.)  Now with so many plastics, the waste no longer breaks down, and it accumulates.

The problems of simply dumping trash are obvious, especially when looking at the shores of Lebanon, where mountains of trash wash into the water and from there onto shores throughout the Mediterranean Sea.  Dumped trash ending up in the water is a global issue, and there are fables telling of “islands” of trash centering in the five enormous gyres of circular ocean currents. (Gyre was a new word for me, so I had to make sure I used it in this post.)  The movie explained that this trash is not composed of bottles and boxes, but it is rather more like plastic confetti as trash is shredded but not decomposed.  These plastic fragments then attract other chemicals, thus providing a new method of concentration and transportation for pesticides, wastes, and by-products.

Trash on the shores of Lebanon

Trash on the shores of Lebanon

Landfills are an improvement over dumping, but even the best managed landfills may leach undesired substances from our chemically more complex waste.  Many landfills are also reaching their allowed capacity, demonstrating that this method of disposal is not an endless resource.  Incinerating trash reduces the need for landfill space, but the movie pointed out that incinerators may produce toxic by-products of combustion, such as dioxin, and the ash from these incinerators generally includes a relatively high concentration of heavy metals.

Finding ways to increase recycling is thus becoming ever more urgent, although the reducing and reusing strategies are actually even more efficient.  I was particularly intrigued by one vignette in which a woman frequented a a grocery store that sells only bulk products without any packaging.  Customers bring not only their own bags but also their own containers for items such as flour, sugar, and cereal.  The woman explained that by using this store and being very careful of what they bought, her family of three generated a single grocery bag of trash for an entire year.  Everything else was recycled, reused or composted.  That sounded amazing.

The discussion after the movie went well.  The audience was mostly undergraduate students, although the first several people who commented were adults who seemed to want to use the event as an opportunity to lecture and to convey their own attitudes.  Acutely aware that the students’ focus was wandering and the energy in the room was falling, I turned the discussion back to the students and asked what one thing they might do to respond to the film after their went home.  The issue of reuse came up, and two students proudly held up Mason jars containing a brown liquid.  I suggested I wasn’t sure if I should ask about the identity of the contents, but they laughed and said it was the iced tea we had for lunch.  I held up my own refillable bottle and invited everyone else who had a refillable bottle to do the same, so it was a bonding experience for some of us.

I couldn’t be sure how much the movie was showcasing typical issues with trash disposal and how much they were taking advantage of particularly bad examples.  Certainly the filmmakers understood that the illustrating the plight of animals was a particularly effective method of communicating the need to change our habits.  I, myself, was not immune to the pictures and lists of all the trash that has been found in the stomach of a single dead bird or a single dead beached whale.

Trash in the stomach of a bird

Trash in the stomach of a bird

My personal take home image was the plastic confetti that is present in virtually any part of the ocean.  My own small change to make has been to bring my breakfast bagel to school in a washable plastic container rather than in a plastic bag.  I hope that all the audience members were equally motivated to make at least one change in their own habits.

Anyone who is interested in learning more or in buying a movie can find information at

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Education and Mobile Devices

I spent my last morning of the recent American Chemical Society meeting in a chemical education symposium on using mobile devices in the classroom.  Not coincidentally, my father was speaking in the session, and aside from supporting family, I find Dad always has something interesting to say.

There was a gratifying audience present prior to the 8:30 AM start of the first talk, and Dad blandly threw out the grenade that according to the policies of the sponsoring society, audience members were not to take any photographs or videos or use any other electronic recording method during the presentations.  As Dad no doubt expected, this announcement sparked a spirited discussion among audience members who were actively encouraging students to use technology to enhance their learning experiences.  I’ve observed that when my own students want a copy of a question I’ve written down on paper or on the board for several, they just take a photo with their smart phones.  Several students who were out sick and missed class have submitted smart phone photos of their homework to make sure that I received it on time.  I think it’s a great habit, and I was aware that I’ve picked up that quick note capture habit.  Earlier in the week, I was quite frustrated in one talk that was rather data intensive, I wasn’t able to take notes quickly enough to capture all the information, but I was not allowed to take a photo and solve the problem quickly and easily.

Before Dad’s talk began, he requested that I keep time for him to ensure that he wouldn’t run over.  Of course, each time I signaled him, he made a comment about me or about needing to talk faster.  When in spite of being out of time he decided to take a third question at the end of his presentation, I made a choking sign, which one other presenter thought was excessive.  I felt that since I didn’t stand up and do chicken squawking imitations, I was still within the bounds of the acceptable.  Besides, I know that sometimes speakers require strong handling, and I learned these skills from Dad himself.

One interesting detail that I got out of Dad’s talk was that that students use mobile devices (laptop, cell phone, tablet) to access content and virtually never use a desktop computer. Even further, students generally use a combination of devices rather than relying on a single communication mode.  I was already keeping time via my cell phone, and I immediately couldn’t decide if it was extremely appropriate or quite inappropriate to get out my iPad to look at the pdf of the symposium schedule so I could stop Dad at the appropriate time.  I eventually went for the double device strategy and figured I was bonding with the students.

Those of you who have read Ender’s Game will recall Ender working on an electronic “desk” that provided him with lessons and served as a communication device.  Listening to all the talks suggested to me that what was a novel idea in the book has nearly become reality.  We just don’t quite know how to integrate everything together yet.  I saw how students who use exclusively an electronic textbook earn grades comparable to students who buy hardcopy (although honors students seem to be particular holdouts for “real” books.)  I learned that students who use iPads to video their experiments in laboratory write much more detailed observations in their reports.  As “flipped” classes, sections in which lecture is taught via a series of short videos prior to class so that lecture time may focus more on problem solving, become more ubiquitous, I started to wonder if my students who search YouTube for videos illustrating problem solving are starting to adapt to that new format and instinctively search for video help rather than reading the book.  Some of the chemical modeling programs that are now being used routinely in class were outstanding reminders that a picture can be worth a thousand words.  I wish I had had these ideas a few weeks ago for my Inorganic chemistry students.  I also have a long list of apps that have been used effectively in various classes, and now I want to try them all!

I was only able to stay for a handful of talks, but my notebook (yes, a physical notebook- old habits from the Senate die hard) was full of arrows and flags identifying great ideas and ways that I might incorporate some of the ideas into my own courses.  I’m not sure if coming to a meeting is more exhausting or if it is more tiring to try to work through all the great ideas I get and have to triage to figure out what is actually possible.  I was disappointed that I couldn’t stay for more of the talks, but my list of Things To Do thinks it may have been for the best.


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