Citizen Scientists: Summer Course Takes Hands-On Approach to Environmental Issues

Environmental chemistry students partake in frequent experiments to help complex subjects gel

chemistry, had students perform during a condensed-but-demanding version of the regular course. A half-dozen summer session courses offered this year, including Environmental Chemistry, gave students an opportunity to earn a few credits or fulfill an elective requirement.

Because Hupp knew many of her summer students would likely be non-chemistry majors, she designed the course to appeal to citizen scientists. "I framed the course around environmental topics and themes that are very timely and relevant," she says. "We do just enough chemistry so that students can get an understanding of those environmental ideas at a bigger level."

And even though the students tend to be non-science majors, the course is hardly all fun and games. Students delve into atomic structures, study how chemicals work with one another and conduct extensive experiments, while Hupp guides them through the challenging material.

The hands-on approach worked for Emily Devine '21, a mathematics major: "After learning about the processes and environmental impact of plastics, gasoline and electricity, I am much more conscious of conserving energy and reusing everything that I can."

It turns out there are advantages to teaching chemistry to those who don't know an alloy from an alkali. The critical-thinking skillset from humanities majors can be just as valuable, Hupp says.

"I realize students are going to bring in their own disciplines and the way that they've been trained in those disciplines," she notes. "If they're an artist or an English major, they're going to think about something in a different way. An important part of my job is to help them think like a scientist a little bit by the time they leave."

Still, to play on students' strengths, Hupp uses out-of-the-box assignments to help the scientific information gel. One favorite project requires students to create a children's book based on a specific environmental topic; for this course, she had students write about ozone.

"Students have to think about the molecule ozone and how they would describe it to a child," she says. "They have to describe that there are manmade chemicals that actually impact ozone and break it down — without being too sad and negative, because it is still a children's book. They need to try and explain the science without being too high level, but also still get the facts across."

Hupp took another inventive approach to engaging students using a history-based exercise called Reacting to the Past, which has them act out a notable scientific moment in history. In this case, students role-played as main participants in the 2009 United Nations Copenhagen Climate Conference (e.g., Barack Obama and Angela Merkel).

"Students research an individual person, organization or stance," Hupp says. "They come in and present, and it becomes a type of debate. Then, there's an actual vote based on the arguments — not the real arguments from the conference, but what was actually presented in class. We break it down at the end and talk about what really happened at the conference and why."

For Carson Harold ’19, an English major with a concentration in gender, sexuality and women's studies, the Reacting to the Past exercise encouraged her to think of science on a much bigger scale: "I realized that once politics becomes involved, the needs, desires and power dynamics of other countries also play a large part. Things can become a lot more complex and difficult to resolve."

One major advantage of a summer course is the small class size, Hupp says; there were only 11 students in the class this year. Another: the lack of distractions.

"I was worried that a six-week class would be too fast-paced," says Brett Boddy ’19, an economics major with a minor in physics. "However, being able to focus on only one course and having a lot of time outside of class to collaborate with classmates made the pacing and format comfortable."

Even with enticing summer activities calling, the students felt taking a summer course was highly beneficial. "Sure, there were days I'd rather be at the beach, but the experience was definitely worth it," Devine adds. "I was able to learn a lot, work on finishing my common requirements and get to know some new people from school really well."

Course Catalog

Chem 141: Environmental Chemistry

Professor: Amber Hupp

Department: Chemistry

Description: In this course, students explore the fundamental chemistry involved in local and global environmental issues. Students learn how anthropogenic activities, such as the burning and generation of products from fossil fuels, affect Earth's air, land and water chemistry. The current and future viability of alternative energy sources, such as nuclear, wind and solar power, are discussed and compared to traditional coal- and oil-based power sources.

Meeting Times: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday | 8:30 a.m. –11:30 a.m.

Classroom: Swords 321

Required Reading

  • "Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World" by Nye (St Martins Griffon, 2016)
  • "Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry to Society" by Middlecamp et al (McGraw-Hill, 2014)
  • Additional readings throughout the semester


  • Design, write and illustrate a children's book about an environmental problem
  • Scientific literature discussion on emerging energy sources
  • Reacting to the Past (RTTP), a historical role-playing game in which students prepare a written and oral argument
  • Three exams


Children's book, exams, RTTP presentation and paper, literature discussion, class participation

About the Professor

Amber Hupp is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry. She earned her B.A. in chemistry from Kalamazoo College and her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Michigan State University. Hupp's lab at Holy Cross uses gas chromatography (GC) and chemometric methods to characterize various plant and animal feedstocks that are used to generate biodiesel fuels. Her lab is active in the summer months and throughout the academic year. She recently published an article regarding efforts using ultrafast GC to analyze biodiesel fuels in the journal "Fuel." Hupp teaches courses at all levels at the College and is teaching an introductory chemistry course called Atoms and Molecules and the associated discovery-based labs this fall.

Written by Jane Carlton for the Fall 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine

Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.