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Sustainability and Systems Thinking In Chemistry Education

Does our teaching of chemistry equip citizens to cope with the changing world?

Answering this question affirmatively for chemistry or STEM learning implies that the knowledge and practice of the discipline is meaningfully interconnected with the environment and society in which we live need to be understood.1 This is fundamentally important for chemistry, whose knowledge and practice cover the structures, properties and transformations of all matter in our world – and this requires an appreciation of how the systems of knowledge in different science disciplines relate to one another and to Earth and societal systems

In SaSTICE, we seek to understand and promote sustainability and systems thinking in chemistry education - spanning schools, higher education and lifelong learning.

1 W.-M. Roth, S. Lee. Science Education as/for Participation in the Community. Sci Ed 2004, 88, 263-291.

Why is sustainability so important in chemistry?

Sustainability, in its broadest sense, describes a relationship between people and the world we live in. The internationally influential 1987 Brundtland Commission Report says that ‘sustainable development aims to promote harmony among human beings and between humanity and nature.’ The same report also contains a widely used definition of sustainability:

‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

But this is not the situation that the world’s people and nature are facing today. The evidence is mounting rapidly about the unprecedented magnitude of environmental changes and of the current unsustainability of many societies’ activities, especially in the most industrialized and globalized nations. The world’s nations have agreed that ‘bold and transformative steps are urgently needed [ that] all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment’ (Preamble to the 2030 Agenda).

Accordingly the policy context for sustainability is changing in response to these global social and environmental changes. Global targets for climate change mitigation are driving moves for ‘net zero’ carbon emissions within the coming decades.1 New targets have also been set for nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.2

This all has important implications in practice for chemistry as a field of action, for chemists and the outlook of their industries, and for us as human beings wanting satisfying lives and decent livelihoods. Acquiring skills in systems thinking can help chemists tackle the urgent sustainability challenges faced by the world, which involve understanding the interactions between materials and planetary and societal systems.

1 Race To Zero Campaign | UNFCCC. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2023, from

2 Convention on Biological Diversity. (2022). Decision adopted by the conference of the parties to the convention on biological diversity -15/4. Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

What is systems thinking?

Systems are groups or combinations of interrelated, interdependent, or interacting components forming distinct collective entities. Note that the interaction of the system components produces an outcome or ‘function’ that is greater than the sum of the individual components.

  • An example of a system is a clock, whose gear wheels, levers and springs work together to tell the time. Note that the interaction of the system components produces an outcome or ‘function’ that is greater than the sum of the individual components. No single gear wheel, lever or spring carries the time-telling capacity on its own, but the function of ‘telling the time’ emerges when all the parts are working together. So ‘telling the time’ is said to be an ‘emergent’ system property
  • A system can be a physical object, like a clock. It can be a process, like a chemical reaction between reagents A and B, from which products C and D emerge. It can be non-material, like a management system in an organization, whose components might include the processes and rules that link all the departments and people together and whose emergent properties might include the product or service they produce, the profit they make or the societal impact they create as a result of their efforts.

    Systems thinking is a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve capability to identify and understand systems, predict their behaviours, and devise modifications to them in order to produce desired effects.

  • These skills provide the ability to visualize, articulate, and solve both complex and uncomplicated problems and concepts and make decisions that are sensible and based on available information. Such skills include demonstration of the ability to apply logical thinking to gathering and analysing information, designing and testing solutions to problems, and formulating plans

You can read about systems and their properties and the importance of systems thinking in more detail here.1,2

1 D. H. Meadows. Thinking in systems: A Primer. D Wright (ed.), Earthscan, London 2009.

2 R. D. Arnold, J. P. Wade. A Definition of Systems Thinking: A Systems Approach. Procedia Computer Science 2015, 44, 669-678.

Why should chemists use systems thinking?
  • Chemistry itself is a system, in which knowledge is organised to provide understanding of the properties and behaviour of chemical entities, how these entities can be transformed and what uses can be made of different materials and chemical processes. All too often, chemistry education has been reduced to learning lists of isolated facts, rather than understanding the relationships between physical and chemical properties and processes of transformation.
  • Viewing the field of chemistry as a dynamic system helps to focus on the many interconnected components that are coherently organized to advance knowledge, deliver useful applications and solve challenges while reducing risks and improving safety and sustainability.
  • The field includes innumerable sub-systems, which can be small-scale and localised (e.g., a reaction in a laboratory vessel) or large-scale (e.g., a manufacturing process used worldwide) and sometimes diffuse (e.g., the presence and impact of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere or oceans).
  • The chemistry system and its component parts interact with many other systems – for example, chemical processes and products interact with the surrounding environment, leading to beneficial and/or harmful effects on biological, ecological, physical, societal and other systems. The system of organized chemistry knowledge provides part of the essential platform for understanding the material/molecular basis of biochemistry, medicine and many other sciences.
Why should chemistry students learn systems thinking?

Learning and applying systems thinking during chemistry education has several important benefits:

  • Viewing chemistry itself as a system can help make the subject more comprehensible and coherent, so that teaching and learning are facilitated.
  • Connecting chemistry with real-world contexts can help to make learning the discipline more interesting and attractive.
  • The learner develops skills in thinking on a system scale while seeing how systems interact and influence one another, facilitating understanding and solving complex, multi-dimensional problems.
  • The capacity for systems thinking is a transferable skill which, once acquired, can be applied in many complex situations – a lifelong benefit for learners of chemistry who do not go on to work in the discipline.
  • Sustainability scientists have identified systems thinking as a key competency that is currently not explicitly addressed in most science education curricula, and whose absence hampers the contribution that chemistry students can make to sustainability in their future professions.1

Systems thinking has both similarities and differences with other approaches such as problem-based learning and context-based learning. System thinking emphasizes component / whole-system distinctions; the interactions between components that result in cause /effect behaviours and system functions; and boundaries (identifying something as a system entails defining what is endogenous, what is exogenous – and what is excluded). Often in real world contexts, perspectives also matter (scales of interest, values, different actors, etc).

  • Context-based learning emphasizes the importance of going beyond acquiring a theoretical understanding of a subject by also obtaining practical experience of working with a subject-related issue and its wider social context, often in the actual working environment.
  • Problem-based learning presents the learner with an open-ended problem situation and invites them to explore the issues and identify the knowledge, learning and tools that they need to solve their problem.
  • Systems thinking can – and often does – involve applying these kinds of student-centered learning approaches and seeking to solve complex real-world problems.

Using systems thinking concepts and tools together with context-based and problem-based learning approaches gives educators the means to support:

  • Clear structuring for communication and explanation of complex concepts
  • Critical thinking for gathering, analysing and deploying information.
  • Problem-solving and knowledge integration that spans across disciplines
  • Applying ‘book-learning’ content to real-world examples
  • Working both individually and in teams

1 Redman, A., & Wiek, A. (2021). Competencies for advancing transformations towards Sustainability. Frontiers in Education, 6.