Building awareness for a sustainable society and lifestyle

April 23, 2021

Practicing a sustainable lifestyle

A young woman practices sustainable living purchasing bulk items in a store. (adobestock)

At UC Berkeley, students can teach classes called Decal to spread awareness and fun about the topics they are passionate about. Kelly Chou, currently a senior studying Chemistry at UC Berkeley, and Kailey Sun Marcus, also a Chemistry transfer student from Berlin, Germany, initiated a course titled “Chem 98: Making Green” in spring, 2020. There were 24 students in the class. The class focused on developing a strong understanding of the chemical and environmental importance of each consumer product and each individual consumer’s contribution to a safer society.  

Both Kelly and Kailey are passionate about Chemistry and finding a sustainable solution for consumer products. Kelly Chou was introduced to Kailey through her mentor in the Department of Chemistry’s Anne Baranger research group. Kailey met Thomas McKeag, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, through CHEM C96: Introduction to Research and Study in the College of Chemistry when he was a guest lecturer. Kelly had planned on initiating a Decal with a focus on consumer products. Kailey’s passion for green chemistry helped them merge their ideas and plan the course. The class title “Making Green” incorporated developing and executing green chemistry along with making money to signify and highlight the idea of clean-green products that are both affordable and profitable.

They divided each class into the following consumer products: Cosmetics, Soap and Detergent, Food Chemistry and Pesticides, Over-the-Counter (OTC) drugs, and Materials and the Built Environment. The class took place weekly for one hour and each class developed a history and chemical background before discussing the sustainable economics of the consumer product. According to the surveys taken at the end of the class students found the class to be well organized. 

Categorization of each class based on each consumer product made it easier to understand and follow the events in the class. The ‘thoughts room ‘ at the end of each class to discuss prompts, and possibilities was my favorite part of the class ”, Student survey, Chem 98- Sp2020. 

Initially planned to be in person, the class went online after 1.5 months because of COVID restrictions. Kelly and Kailey quickly managed the adjustment to teaching online and made the best out of it as they uploaded their lectures and stimulated discussion through discussion boards.

In fall 2020, Jhanvi Patel, a junior studying Chemical Biology and Business and Grayson Hamaker Teals, a junior studying Chemical Biology took over the class as student instructors. Grayson and Jhanvi have also been passionate about green chemistry and consumer products since they were young. Both of them had been students in the spring Decal class. “Chem 98 played an important role in growing my love and understanding for consumer products. It stimulated my interest in green chemistry and education, beyond my expectations,” Jhanvi Patel said.  

To reach their potential audience, they strategized virtual engagement opportunities. They designed flyers, posted on social media, and asked their professors to publicize the Decal class through e-mail or in the classes they were teaching. They had 35 students sign up for the second class. To make the class a little different, Grayson and Jhanvi incorporated a segment about green economics in which they reviewed a green economy model and the reality of how to sustain it. Their aim was to reduce environmental risks and ecological scarcities and foster sustainable development without degrading the environment.

After considering various alternatives,  Grayson and Jhanvi titled the Decal “Chem 98: Introduction to Consumer Sustainability”. They also divided the class into sections based on consumer products including cosmetics, soap and detergent, food chemistry and pesticides, OTC (over the counter) drugs, and materials and the built environment. Instead of developing concepts about different consumer products each week, the student instructors focused on a single consumer product for two weeks to develop the understanding from both the chemistry and market sphere.

For example, the first module was cosmetics: in the first week the class discussed the history, origin, and chemistry behind cosmetics and in the second week they talked about the industrial success of sustainable economic models and different economic sustainability approaches. This was a revision from the spring course that had been taught by Kailey and Kelly. 

Decal Chem 98: Introduction to Consumer Sustainability  was online throughout the semester in fall, 2020. The student-instructors had to make more changes keeping the pandemic in mind. They made the class more interactive by including discussion boards on bcourses (the official dashboard for UC Berkeley) and zoom breakout room activities. They also sent out feedback forms at the beginning and end of the semester to understand student learning, expectations and, ways to improve the course

The Spring 2020 class welcomed three guest speakers who helped us understand real workd green consumer models. Kaj Johnson, Sr. Director of Product Development from Method, talked about soaps and detergents. Method is the pioneer of premium planet-friendly and design-driven home, fabric and personal care products. The products at Method are formulated with naturally derived, biodegradable ingredients. Lauren Irie, a fellow undergraduate researcher in the Baranger Lab (she has since graduated and is now pursuing grad studies), talked about recyclable plastics, particularly in 3D printing. Jacob Zamojc, who was also an undergraduate researcher in the Helms Group (Ph.D. ’06, Chem) at Berkeley Lab, talked about plastic recycling, particularly about the different plastic classification groups. (Recent research from the Helms group has announced new market to consumer plastics recycling possibilities.) 

“If we were on a mission in outer space and we had a shortage of resources, a spaceship would be sent to fulfil our needs, but we are on earth, also a mission, but we do not have a spaceship which can replenish our needs. We need to be conscious and reduce depletion to save the planet.” Jacob Zamojc. 

 The class ran again in fall 2020 and included two guest speakers. Noah Kittner, Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina who talked about renewable energy and Michel Dedeo, Manager of Chemical Data system at Healthy Building Networks who talked about building as a resource. Dr. Kittner explained the speed of depletion of fossil fuels and non-renewable energies and focused on alternative resource management using various graphical notations which were a great way of understanding the percentile changes.

Example sources of PFAA chemical

Examples of PFAS sources. (Image: picture source:

Dr. Dedeo explained about PFAS in household products from pizza boxes and candy wrappers to stain resistant carpets and cleaning products. The talk was full of relatable information about everyday life which made it both fascinating and exciting. The approval rating. Students considered the professional experience sharing very helpful. 

Spring, 2021, has brought new opportunities to improve the class. This semester Jhanvi Patel and Grayson Hamaker Teals have again taken on the project with experience and excitement. They currently have 18 students which gives them the opportunity for more in-depth discussions in a live setting. This is different from the previous semesters which hosted recorded lectures with live student interactions only for discussion. The class has been redone based on the fall 2020 class, and it has given the instructors a chance for deeper engagement with fellow students forming new relationships.

The instructors welcomed two guest speakers based on the students’ desire to include more industry experience and reducing asynchronous workload. The first guest speaker was Claudia Polsky, an assistant clinical professor of law and a director of the Environmental Law Clinic. She discussed regulations and implementation of the toxic chemical and animal-cruelty laws in cosmetics. The second guest speaker Noah Kittner, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, talked about renewable energy. It was a semester of personal-customization according to the likes and desires of the students.