The UMass Civic Engagement and Service-Learning (CESL) office has named Lecturer Anna Marie LaChance of the Chemical Engineering Department as a CESL Faculty Fellow for 2023-2024. LaChance explains that, as a Faculty Fellow, she will be adapting her course on polymer processing so her students can “work towards reducing the use of single-use plastics, building new recycling infrastructure, and imagining better futures where the plastic industry is held accountable for the harm they’re doing to the planet.”

According to its website, “The mission of CESL is to promote learning for lifelong, democratic engagement, partnering with communities on and off campus to work collectively for a more just society.” 

That mission is exactly what LaChance will be doing as a Faculty Fellow. In the Spring of 2023 semester, LaChance taught “Polymer Processing & Sustainability,” a brand-new course offering of her own creation, to Chemical Engineering students. The course teaches about the intersection of plastic production and social justice, taking an anti-colonial science perspective to introduce learners to the wide field of polymer processing as well as the complex issues of sustainable-plastic production and environmental remediation.

Alongside a variety of polymer processing techniques—including extrusion, injection molding, compression molding, and composites manufacturing—LaChance discusses the environmental implications of polymer processing and the role plastics have played in shaping modern society. The course covers a broad range of topics, such as engineering ethics, environmental justice, workers’ rights, and more, through a critical-science-studies lens.

However, LaChance could tell that something was missing from her curriculum. “And that was true student engagement,” she says. “We spend a lot of time doing life-cycle assessments of various polymers, but it was difficult for students to see the material impact of plastic use while sitting in a classroom and crunching numbers. I think chemical engineers are uniquely suited to solve the plastic-pollution crisis, given their strong background in fluid mechanics, separations, and process design.”

LaChance plans to use her time as a CESL Faculty Fellow incorporating that missing ingredient of student engagement. “These students could work with community composters, farmers, cooperatively owned grocery stores, and more to help them better understand the impact of plastic in their work and help them choose better plastics to work with.”

With the adaptations being planned by LaChance, she believes her students will get hands-on experience and engagement with how plastics are recycled in the real world. “Working with a community partner, such as a local plastic recycling plant, could make their education about plastics more culturally relevant, and in turn the students’ chemical-engineering knowledge could help the community partners better their own practice.”

LaChance is already adapting her course into a Summer Session II  course for all majors ( ChE 290STB, “Plastics in Society,” is open to those outside of the Chemical Engineering major who are interested in engaging with the same topics.

“The summer course focuses less on the materials science of polymers and more on the social-justice elements,” LaChance says. “I’m spending the summer producing high-quality video lectures on the subject, and I’m really aiming to make this information as accessible as possible.” You can view the first of these summer lectures on Anna’s YouTube channel.

LaChance hasn’t decided which of these two courses she will adapt for her CESL project. But either way, as she explains, “My hope is that I can get students involved in their local communities to educate people about plastic use. I believe that hands-on experience in a recycling center, plastic-production facility, or some other community environment would make their learning experience far more impactful. And, most importantly, they would be getting out there and helping people!” (August 2023)

Article posted in Academics