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Sustainability education: from DREAMS to reality

Incorporating sustainability into education

- May 7, 2012

Mary Anne White in her lab. (Danny Abriel photo)
Mary Anne White in her lab. (Danny Abriel photo)

Over the past few years, huge gains have been made in sustainability research and development, but there is still much room to further integrate sustainability into the sciences.

Recently, the Dalhousie Research in Energy, Advanced Materials and Sustainability (DREAMS) program was recognized for its work in this area, winning an American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Exemplary Work in the Incorporation of Sustainability into Chemistry Education.

But DREAMS isn’t all about chemistry. It’s also an interdisciplinary program for physics and engineering students. DREAMS draws top-level scholars from across Canada to carry out research at Dal through a unique lens: that of a sustainability-focused researcher.

Sustainability in the spotlight

Given the importance of sustainability, it may surprise you that sustainability is not part of science curricula at many universities.

“It is a component of logical scientific reasoning that sometimes gets overlooked,” explains DREAMS Director Mary Anne White. “For example, approaches to chemistry are not always sustainable. It’s important to think about how we can make the best use of our finite materials and other resources.”

Dr. White notes that research and development coming out of DREAMS is especially applicable because it considers the whole picture surrounding materials and energy issues.

The brainchild of researchers associated with the Dalhousie Institute for Research and Materials (IRM), the program is funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program.

DREAMS has come a long way since 2010, when Dal Professor Jeff Dahn secured its initial grant funding. Since its conception, DREAMS has attracted 30 researchers (22 undergrads and eight masters and PhD students) with the chance to work alongside participating professors on complex projects, take challenging courses and intern at a partner organization.

“There is a lot of competition for top-level grad students but we have a special edge,” says DREAMS Coordinator Janet MacDonald. “DREAMS has courses specially crafted for the program and internships with industry and government partners such as 3M and Hydro Québec.”

Dal shares sustainability successes

Receiving the ACS award at the Spring National Meeting marked a significant accomplishment, as DREAMS was the only awardee at the graduate level.

Dr. White, representing DREAMS, delivered a lecture at the meeting, explaining the program to conference delegates. She discussed topics covered in DREAMS courses including elemental availability, energy costs and life cycle assessment.

Following the lecture, many professors approached Dr. White for resources, especially those focusing on element availability.

“Chemists usually think all elements on the periodic table can be used but not all of them are sufficiently abundant or available,” says Dr. White. “My presentation talked a lot about how we introduce our students to these limitations before they do their research projects.”

Supervising professors in DREAMS are among the most respected in the country and new industry partners sign on regularly. But Dr. White attributes a large part of DREAMS' success to its students.

“Our students are dedicated and very smart,” she smiles. “They make the program what it is.”


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