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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter October 15, 2021

Systems Thinking and Sustainability

Converging on chemistry’s role in the 21st Century

  • Peter Mahaffy , Stephen Matlin , Marietjie Potgieter , Bipul Saha , Aurelia Visa , Sarah Cornell , Felix Ho , Vicente Talanquer , Jane Wissinger and Vania Zuin
From the journal Chemistry International

Abstract

A 3-year IUPAC project Systems Thinking in Chemistry for Sustainability: Toward 2030 and Beyond (STCS 2030+, IUPAC Project #2020-014-3-050) [1] launched in late 2020 is breaking important new ground in addressing chemistry’s orientations, roles, and responsibilities in the 21st Century and helping to map out implications for chemistry education, research, and practice. In taking on this ambitious task, STCS 2030+ draws on expertise available within IUPAC’s own structures, as a project co-sponsored by three IUPAC standing committees: the Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE), the Committee on Chemistry and Industry (COCI) and the Interdivisional Committee on Green Chemistry for Sustainable Development (ICGCSD). The project is also working with other organizations, such as the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD), which is a co-supporter, and involves collaborators with individuals from organizations that include the Stockholm Resilience Centre [2], the American Chemical Society (ACS) Green Chemistry Institute [3], the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD 2022-23) [4], and chemistry educators and chemical industry from around the world.

STCS 2030+ builds on and extends outcomes from the recently completed IUPAC Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education (STICE) project [5], which examined the potential benefits of incorporating systems thinking (ST) into chemistry education and ways to support chemistry educators in using ST. Systems thinking uses a variety of tools and cognitive frameworks to enhance our understanding of complex behaviors and phenomena from a holistic perspective. One of the main drivers behind the STICE project included recognition that, while ST has been has been identified as one of the core competences necessary to achieve sustainability [6] and has been extensively adopted in some other disciplines, including biology, engineering, and earth and environmental sciences, virtually no attention has been given to the use of ST in chemistry education. Potential benefits to using ST approaches in chemistry education include (a) enhancing students’ knowledge, skills, and values in chemistry through a focus on the interconnections between different chemical phenomena; (b) improving students’ knowledge of the influence of chemistry on planetary and societal issues; and (c) preparing students to make informed decisions and to address the complex global challenges of the 21st Century [7]. An important catalyst for the IUPAC ST projects was a proposal by a group at the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) that ST should be key to re-imagining chemistry in the 21st Century and optimizing chemistry’s contributions to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [8]. The STICE project catalyzed considerable global momentum, with wide dissemination at national and international conferences, publication in Nature journals, 43 contributed papers to the December 2019 special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education [9] and a feature cover story in the February 3, 2020 issue of Chemical & Engineering News [10].

 
        
          
            Figure 1:
          
           Integrating Sustainability into Learning in Chemistry—the visual representation of Working Group 1 editorial in the Journal of Chemical Education.

Figure 1: Integrating Sustainability into Learning in Chemistry—the visual representation of Working Group 1 editorial in the Journal of Chemical Education.

Aims of the STCS 2030+ project are three-fold: (a) to highlight and strengthen the centrality of chemistry as a sustainability science through chemistry education, engaging with the 2022-2023 IYBSSD to incorporate ST as a fundamentally important approach to support integrating human needs and science in the service of planetary sustainability; (b) to formulate recommendations to guide use of ST in chemistry education; and (c) to seek ways to engage with chemical industry to explore how it can contribute to outcomes of the IYBSSD and how chemical industry views ST and its incorporation into chemistry education, research, and industrial practice.

Progress to Date

Two working groups have been meeting bi-weekly since the beginning of 2021, focused on the first two STCS 2030+ project aims (sustainability and education), and plans are underway to form a third working group to engage with chemical industry. We report below progress made by the working groups.

Working Group One—Sustainability (WG1) has focused its efforts on Project Aim 1—to articulate the strong contribution that chemistry education and practice will make to achieving sustainability. The group co-authored a guest editorial in the Journal of Chemical Education, titled “Integrating Sustainability into Learning in Chemistry,” and Figure 1 [11]. The timing coincided with Earth Day 2021 and ACS celebration of Earth Week in April 2021. The article proposed that chemistry educators have the responsibility to teach the central role chemistry will play in concert with other disciplines, in building a sustainable future for people and the planet. Two frameworks driving global sustainability efforts that can be leveraged to integrate these important concepts into curricula are the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) [12] and the Planetary Boundaries Framework [13].

Educators are using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to provide concrete examples of ways in which green and sustainable chemistry can contribute to achieving the 2030 SDGs and to bring international perspectives into the classroom. The chemistry community is much less familiar with the Planetary Boundaries Framework, which measures the stability and resilience of the Earth system in the midst of rapid global change. The framework’s nine earth system processes (climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, freshwater use, land-system changes, and biosphere integrity) and their dynamic interactions describe the biophysical state, stability, and resilience of our planet. Control variables for each of the earth system processes, many of which are directly related to the production and measurement of chemical substances in the atmosphere, hydrosphere or lithosphere, have been identified and quantified for seven of the nine earth system processes. As Figure 2 from an interactive electronic version of the framework created by the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS) [14] shows, the numerical value of the control variable indicates with a green/yellow/red colour scheme whether that earth system process is still in a safe operating zone (below the planetary boundary), a zone of increasing risk, or a zone of high risk as a result of human activity.

WG1 is exploring ways in which the Planetary Boundaries Framework can be used by chemistry and cross-disciplinary science educators as a ST tool to explore and address the dynamic and complex challenges of sustainability. Chemist Peter Mahaffy, Physicist Rob MacDonald, and the student research team at King’s Center for Visualization in Science (kcvs.ca) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada are collaborating with Sarah Cornell and her colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre to visualize the web of earth system connections in the planetary boundaries framework and to explore how knowledge of chemistry and other STEM science core curriculum concepts can be woven in to approaches to understand and address the complex challenges faced by the Earth system as a whole. The working group is collaborating with the KCVS research team in their development of interactive electronic resources linking STEM curriculum to the planetary boundaries framework. The project is exploring how the outcomes can be disseminated as an IUPAC contribution to the activities and approaches planned for IYBSSD so as to facilitate integrating the teaching and learning of basic science concepts into sustainability considerations [15].

 
          
            
              Figure 2:
            
             Planetary Boundaries Framework, from the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS) planetary boundaries interactive learning resource at www.planetaryboundaries.kcvs.ca, building on and adapted from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Steffen et al., Science 2015 or [13]).

Figure 2: Planetary Boundaries Framework, from the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS) planetary boundaries interactive learning resource at www.planetaryboundaries.kcvs.ca, building on and adapted from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Steffen et al., Science 2015 or [13]).

One example of using the web of planetary boundaries connections linking the ocean acidification earth system to other earth system processes is shown in Figure 3. An interactive force-directed graph developed at KCVS [14] highlights the ocean acidification earth system, which then moves to the centre of view for the user, revealing several important chemistry and STEM curriculum topics that are linked to the ocean acidification earth system process. For example, the ocean acidification earth system process is interconnected with the climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system changes, and biogeochemical flows earth system processes, and offers a sustainability context for coverage in foundational chemistry courses of topics such as acid-base chemistry, solubility & precipitation, equilibrium concepts, gas properties, and speciation in aqueous solutions.

Working Group Two—Education (WG2) has focused on developing a common understanding of systems thinking in chemistry education, outlining basic questions that need to be answered to define what aspects of ST could be integrated in chemistry education, why that integration is important, and how that integration could be best accomplished. Initial answers to the following questions have been generated:

  1. Why do we think chemistry educators should incorporate systems thinking into their courses?

  2. Which aspects/characteristics/parts of ST do we anticipate will be the easiest for a typical chemistry instructor to integrate into what they are already doing?

  3. Which aspects/characteristics/parts of ST do we believe typical chemistry instructors will struggle with the most?

  4. What are some background terms and concepts that educators might need to know about to understand ST?

  5. Which general chemistry topics/content do we think will provide the easiest entry points for integrating ST?

  6. If we were to think about educating educators, what should be our goals for their professional development?

WG2 has agreed to develop guidelines and resources that help chemistry educators incorporate ST into their courses to promote:

  1. A view of chemistry itself as a system to make the subject more comprehensible and coherent, rather than appearing as a massive list of facts to be learned, so that teaching and learning are facilitated;

  2. Connections of chemistry with global challenges and sustainability goals that can help to make the discipline more attractive to diverse students;

  3. Development of skills for thinking at a system scale and seeing how systems interact and influence one another, facilitating understanding and solving complex, multi-dimensional problems.

  4. Development of thinking skills for tackling the sustainability challenges faced by the world, which involve curricular interactions across disciplines with planetary and societal systems.

 
          
            
              Figure 3:
            
             Visualization of the web of connections among the ocean acidification earth system and several other connected earth system processes in the Planetary Boundaries Framework. Representative descriptions of the connections are shown for each connection, and a web of curriculum connections to chemistry and STEM disciplines will be developed and disseminated in an interactive resource for educators. (Visualization by Robert MacDonald, King’s Centre for Visualization of Science, www.kcvs.ca)

Figure 3: Visualization of the web of connections among the ocean acidification earth system and several other connected earth system processes in the Planetary Boundaries Framework. Representative descriptions of the connections are shown for each connection, and a web of curriculum connections to chemistry and STEM disciplines will be developed and disseminated in an interactive resource for educators. (Visualization by Robert MacDonald, King’s Centre for Visualization of Science, www.kcvs.ca)

 
          
            
              Figure 4:
            
             One goal of Working Group Two (Education) is to publish IUPAC recommendations for the use of systems thinking in chemistry education, building on and extending the work of the IUPAC STICE project, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, and other chemistry educators, published in a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education, December 2019 [9].

Figure 4: One goal of Working Group Two (Education) is to publish IUPAC recommendations for the use of systems thinking in chemistry education, building on and extending the work of the IUPAC STICE project, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, and other chemistry educators, published in a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education, December 2019 [9].

The guidelines and resources to be developed will help educators identify and reflect upon the:

  1. Big/core/central ideas of ST in chemistry that students should understand;

  2. Learning objectives (LOs) that should guide instruction and assessment of ST in chemistry;

  3. Topics and contexts that are most productive in motivating and building student understanding of ST in relation to global challenges and sustainability goals;

as well as to select or design:

  1. Formative and summative assessment tasks that help evaluate student progress towards and achievement of the targeted LOs;

  2. In-class activities that help develop student understanding of targeted central ideas and achieve the targeted LOs;

  3. Ways in which a ST orientation enriches chemistry learning.

The group has reviewed some existing instructional activities to evaluate the extent to which they can help promote ST in chemistry education and propose possible modifications that will enrich their ST components.

Working Group Three—Chemical Industry (WG3)—proposed

As STCS 2030+ moves ahead, it is engaging in dialogue with people working in chemistry-related industries, which are seen as important to all aspects of the project’s aims. In particular, industry perspectives and needs can help to inform what is important to be included in the reforms of chemistry education approaches and curricula; in the focus and cross-disciplinary perspectives of chemistry research; and in the ways that chemistry engages with other basic sciences in channeling efforts in the IYBSSD.

The leadership of STCS 2030+ invites interested individuals and groups in chemistry-related industries to contact project task group co-chair Stephen Matlin to discuss involvement in the project.

Future directions for the project and ways for others to get involved

Future directions for the project will include:

  1. Integrating the activities of the working groups across the entire project;

  2. Reporting regularly and solicit input from the three IUPAC standing committees and other stakeholders;

  3. Strengthening and building further interactions with partners and collaborators;

  4. Developing additional mechanisms for disseminating project outcomes, including the development of a ST web site NS and presentation of outcomes and engage with practitioners through ST workshops at national and international chemistry conferences;

  5. Articulating IUPAC recommendations and exemplars for the education community;

  6. Liaising further with leadership of IYBSSD to discuss ways to integrate the interactive resources linking chemistry teaching and learning to sustainability as a contribution to IYBSSD;

  7. Developing a plan for sustainability of this work beyond the lifetime of the IUPAC project so as to continue to serve chemistry educators and other stakeholders; and

  8. Working toward building a community of practice among chemistry educators with resources and exemplars.

To become involved in the project, please contact any of the task group co-chairs: Peter Mahaffy <>, Stephen Matlin <>, Marietjie Potgieter <>, Bipul Saha <>, or Aurelia Visa <>.

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Online erschienen: 2021-10-15
Erschienen im Druck: 2021-10-01

©2021 IUPAC & De Gruyter. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For more information, please visit: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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