Over the last half-century, plastics have become integral to everyday life. From car parts to food storage to the microplastics in clothes, plastics are everywhere – and, crucially, will remain everywhere, as they do not naturally break down. This is a modern dilemma that Dr. Skip Rochefort addressed head on in his honors colloquium Plastic for Poets. In this class, students explore society’s reliance on plastics, different types of plastics and their impacts on the environment, and how to reduce waste and single-use plastics.
Rochefort, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering, has taught and researched plastics in science and engineering classes for decades. He came up with the idea for the colloquium nearly 20 years ago, when he learned that a colleague had developed a course called Environmental Sciences for Poets designedto make the topic more palatable for students from non-STEM disciplines. Rochefort quickly realized that the Honors College colloquium setting was a perfect avenue to introduce his work to a new audience of students.
Rochefort’s inspiration for the class was to educate more people about the importance of plastics in daily life and on the environment. “There is generally a complete misunderstanding or lack of understanding of plastics and plastic recycling in the world,” he says. In Plastic for Poets, Rochefort incorporates a series of accessible demonstrations and experiments on making plastics and proper plastics recycling and encourages students to participate in Oregon State Earth Week activities through a student-driven group outreach project. He finds interdisciplinary collaboration critical to addressing the world’s problems, saying, “If our young people are going to participate in the process, which involves politics, you have to ask questions and look at research and data.”
Charlie Paulsen, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, describes this colloquium as “an incredible introduction to everything plastics, covering topics like plastic manufacturing, chemical and mechanical recycling, pollution and pollution solutions, and innovations in the field of polymers.” He further details the class as student-driven and directed and found the course “fascinating, fun and well worth the time.” Another student, Alanna Celaya, a kinesiology major with a pre-med option, reflects on this class by saying, “Growing up in southern California, I didn’t learn much about the harmful effects of plastic or anything about recycling. So I appreciate how much this class opened up my eyes to issues of plastic and pollution.”
Rochefort adds, “The only thing I want students to know when they get out of this class is what plastic is, and when they see something made of plastic, they can identify it and educate other people about the role plastics play today.” As a final assessment, Rochefort requires students to collaborate on a self-designed group project. Previous projects have included sizeable informational art pieces made out of recycled plastics. This year, students created a picture book about the impacts of plastics on the environment. Charlie recalls one of his favorite memories of the course was “creating the final project about plastic alternatives and the relationship between plastic, environmental pollution and social justice.” His most significant takeaway from the course was humanity’s global dependency on plastic and the equalizing and polluting effects this has on people and the environment.
By Jax Richards, Honors College student writer