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New grants will help St. Olaf implement 'green' science

By David Gonnerman '90
August 18, 2004

The W.M. Keck Foundation has awarded St. Olaf College a $500,000 grant to incorporate 'green' chemistry into the college's science curriculum. St. Olaf has also received $98,000 from the Kresge Foundation to help make the science complex that is currently being designed a sustainable and environmentally friendly building.

Van Wylen
"We're excited about these opportunities," says St. Olaf Associate Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dave Van Wylen. "They will help us develop programs and spaces for our students that honor the environment."

The green, or sustainable, chemistry movement gained ground in the early 1990s, when industries needed to cope with initiatives set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency. Seeking to minimize the impact of chemical processes on the environment, industries soon learned that green chemistry was an effective way to reduce overall costs of manufacturing and waste. Minnesota company 3M, with its "Pollution Prevention Pays" program that dates to the mid-1970s, is a leader of the movement. Last year, 3M received a Clean Air Excellence Award from the EPA for regulatory or policy innovations.

"The green chemistry curriculum in development at St. Olaf College is an innovative approach to a more sustainable future, " says Dr. Katherine E. Reed, 3M vice president for environmental, health and safety operations. "As these students move into the workforce they will positively influence their organizations and the world. I applaud St. Olaf for undertaking this important initiative and look forward to the first graduating class with this background. "

Although the EPA and the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute jointly promote the use of green chemistry, colleges and universities have been slow to integrate this cutting edge technology into the classroom. "The University of Oregon is a model for the St. Olaf program, which will in turn become a model for other schools, " says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson, who submitted the chemistry proposal with fellow faculty members Gary Spessard and Robert Hanson.

A pilot green chemistry program, created by Spessard and 30 students, was implemented by the St. Olaf Chemistry Department in the fall of 2003. The pilot classes employed green chemistry principles such as the use of water-based and non-toxic chemicals and students performed chemical transformations parallel to students using the traditional approach. But they did so by using a more efficient process that generated less waste. A significant benefit was that they did not need the fume hoods that limit exposure to hazardous fumes associated with chemical experiments.

The new chemistry curriculum is closely integrated with plans for the college's proposed science complex. "That's how these grants hold hands so nicely," says Van Wylen. "In the end, what you ideally want is a building that's green with a program that's green."

Van Wylen says science buildings are the most difficult to make green because of their high use of energy. "But if you build them right, you can have the highest impact on the environment," he adds.

St. Olaf hopes its green program and building will produce future scientists who will be leaders in the implementation of green chemistry in the workplace.

The amount of grants awarded to St. Olaf science programs this year exceeds $3 million. In May 2004, St. Olaf received a $1.4 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that will help forge interdisciplinary collaborations within the sciences and mathematics. At the same time, the college's statistics program was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the creation of a Center for Interdisciplinary Research.

The W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. With assets of more than $1 billion, the foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic organizations. The foundation's two undergraduate programs -- in liberal arts, and science and engineering -- promote innovative instruction and research at colleges across the nation.

The Kresge Foundation was founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1924 "to promote the well-being of mankind." The foundation's grants support a wide range of organizations reflecting almost the entire breadth of the nonprofit sector.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or