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Vol. 26 No. 4
July-August 2004

When Ideas Become Deeds: Chemical Education and Sustainable Development in Russia

by Natalia P. Tarasova

See also "Chemistry Clearing House" by Elena S. Gryzlova

After the United Nations “Earth Summit”—held in June 1992 in Rio de Janerio, Brazil—the phrase “education for sustainable development” became known to the general public for the first time. A major reason for this was chapter 36, “Promoting Education, Public Awareness, and Training,” of Agenda 21, a pathbreaking document that was adopted by more than 178 governments at the conference. Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the U.N. system, governments, and major groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment.1 As chapter 36 states, education is indispensable for achieving sustainable development.

Following the adoption of Agenda 21, contributions to increasing education, public awareness, and training in sustainable development were made by the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) at its sessions, by the U.N. General Assembly at its Special Sessions (1997), and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) (Johannesburg, 2002).

In 1996, the CSD adopted an International Work Program on Education, Public Awareness, and Training for Sustainability in order to give added impetus and visibility to this theme. The Work Program encouraged the identification and sharing of best practices and the forging of linkages with the Work Program on Changing Production and Consumption Patterns. This lead to a call for the review of national education policies and the integration of education and awareness into national strategies and plans for sustainable development. These were the events that inspired the Dmitry Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology of Russia to organize the first international conference on Chemical Education and Sustainable Development, in Moscow in October 2000.

The objective of the conference was to discuss experiences with education for sustainable development in the field of chemical education. Specifically, the conference reviewed the implementation of recommendations from Agenda 21 and discussed how to develop innovative methods of chemical education and how to increase the involvement of educators in sustainable development. It was stressed that chemical education can be effectively used for this purpose because chemistry is a fundamental science and provides a scientific basis for a variety of technologies in different branches of industry.

The conference was supported by IUPAC, UNESCO, the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Russian Chemical Society. More than 250 participants from 10 countries discussed the following themes at 4 symposia and 2 plenary meetings: chemical education and technical progress, chemical education and environmental problems, chemical education and human health, and chemical education and food problems.

One output of these discussions was the recognition that chemical sciences should play a very positive role in sustainable development, contributing to improvements in quality of life for present and future generations. At the same time, conference participants agreed that without proper control, human-made chemicals have the potential for enormous negative impacts. So, enlightened management of the chemical sciences is necessary to ensure that as the field advances, the effects are beneficial to humanity as well.

An analysis of the history of Russian engineering education provides some compelling lessons. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Russia celebrated 300 years of engineering education, its foundations having been laid by Peter the Great, who issued the order to organize the School of Mathematics and Navigation Sciences. This school trained not only military engineers, but also the civil engineers needed for the transformation of feudal Russia into an industrial country. Scientists from Europe, mainly from Germany, were invited to help establish the Russian educational system. So, it is easy to understand why for quite a long time Russian engineering was modeled on German higher technical schools.

During the former Soviet Union’s periods of industrialization and construction of the centrally planned economy, higher engineering education was subject to quite strict state control as far as the content and the performance of teaching were concerned. The state maintained strict control over the content of curricula and the structure of education in general. The in-depth specialization of graduates and their placement in jobs was the responsibility of the state ministries and the higher institutions themselves. Such an approach resulted from the fast growth of industry and the beginning of the Cold War. The goal was “victory at any price.”

In today’s modern world, it is quite obvious that such an approach cannot be put into action and would lead nowhere. The strategy of sustainable development is the only alternative. The new techniques and technologies in all branches of material goods production make it evident that the role of engineers is becoming even more important.

The problems of the rational use of natural resources, energy conservation, protection of the environment, prevention of technological accidents, and risk management all require the active participation of engineers, with their particular knowledge and skills. So the goal of education must be to train specialists within a holistic life paradigm, so that they can be responsible citizens. The special role of engineer-chemists should be mentioned, because environmentally friendly technologies and green chemistry could provide real help in the transition to sustainability. While today this is well understood in Russia, the idea gained further momentum when representatives of industry and university professors at the conference formulated these goals into a specific recommendation of the international conference.

After the disintegration of the former USSR, two-thirds of the Soviet Union’s technical universities, which educate 2.8 million students, remained part of the Russian Federation. Of the approximately 220 000 pedagogic staff, 13 700 were Doctors of Science and 115 000 were Candidates of Science. Practically all the leading engineering schools remained in Russia, including chemical engineering schools.

During the 1990s, the Russian government took steps to improve the system of educational management. Several laws have been adopted for this purpose, including the Law on Education (1992, amended in 1996) and the Federal Law of the Russian Federation on Higher and Post-Higher Professional Education (1996). Thus, a legislative base was created for the functioning of higher education. Later, the concept of federal educational standards was developed and adopted. This set of standards describes the minimum knowledge compulsory for graduates to obtain the state diploma of higher education. A system of licensing of educational activities, attestation, and state accreditation of institutions of higher education was put into effect. The attempt to copy the Western system of public attestation and accreditation failed.

These measures led to the development of university autonomy and to an increase in the academic mobility of students. The multi-level system of education (Master of Science and Bachelor of Science) started to develop alongside the traditional training of engineers. With academic freedom, higher institutions may choose the form of training most suited to their regional conditions. Not all of them have chosen the European system of Master of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees. Nevertheless, in the second edition of the Federal Educational Standards (adopted in the 2000) one can find sets of specializations for Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science degrees as well as for “diplomated engineers.”

Through these types of degrees, the idea of widening the profile of training has been realized. All engineering and technological specialties are grouped under the umbrella of “Techniques and Technologies.” For example, instead of 37 specialties in chemical technology, as there used to be in the late 1970s, now there are only 5 branches. Technical specialties in environmental protection are grouped under “Protection of the Environment,” with the qualification “engineer-ecologist” on the diploma. According to the recommendations of the international conference, “Environmental Chemistry” is a compulsory course for the engineer-ecologists. Since 2000, several summer schools have been organized at D. Mendeleyev University to teach young university teachers the innovative methods of teaching.

In 1995, D. Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology became the first school in Russia to organize a Department for the Problems of Sustainable Development. Later, following the recommendations of the international conference, D. Mendeleyev University created the Institute of Chemistry and the Problems of Sustainable Development (2000), which now includes the College for Rational Use of Natural Resources, the Department of Sociology, Department of Risk Assessment and Risk Management, and the Department for the Protection of the Producers’ Rights (dealing with legislation of chemicals, the chemical industry, and environmental regulation).

Research is a compulsory component of contemporary higher education in Russia. So, a number of research universities have recently been organized to collaborate with research institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences. As an example, Higher Chemical College of Russian Academy of Sciences is a part of D. Mendeleyev University. Through these arrangements, students start working in the laboratories of research institutes during their first year at college. By the time of graduation they normally have several publications in national or international scientific journals. Some of the results of the students’ research have found practical application in Russia and abroad. Of course, those who are admitted to this college are gifted students, winners of Chemistry Olympiads or graduates of the Moscow Chemistry Lyceum. As recommended by the international conference, special courses have been offered to these students, as well as to other students from advanced colleges, on the problems of sustainable development and environmental risk assessment and management.

The technological approach to the training of engineers-chemists cannot prevail given current societal conditions. Higher school in Russia is in a state of transition to the new educational paradigm—training specialists in a holistic way of thinking. Engineers trained in a holistic manner could give momentum to the practical implementation of the concept of sustainable development. The leading universities of Russia are successfully moving in this direction. The educational community of Russia is quite optimistic about the idea of lifelong education for sustainable development, the momentum having been given by the first international conference on Chemical Education and Sustainable Development four years ago.

Following WSSD recommendations, the U.N. General Assembly, at its 57th Session (2002), decided to adopt a decade of education for sustainable development, starting in 2005. To define the goals and the strategies for the decade, D. Mendeleyev University decided to hold the Second International Conference on “Chemical Education and Sustainable Development” in November 2004. Chemists from all over the globe who are interested in the contribution of chemistry to the future of humankind should contact the organizers; conference details may be found at on the D. Mendeleyev University Web site at <www.muctr.edu.ru>.

1. www.un.org/esa/sustdev/documents/agenda21/index.htm

Natalia P. Tarasova <tarasnp@muctr.edu.ru> is the head of the Department for the Problems of Sustainable Development at the D. Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, in Moscow. She is also vice president of the UNESCO Associated Center for Chemical Science and Education, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a member of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.

www.iupac.org/projects/1999/1999-035-1-025.html
www.muctr.edu.ru


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