Systems thinking for education about the molecular basis of sustainability


The primary activities of chemistry involve analysing, synthesizing and transforming matter, yet insufficient attention has been paid to the implications of those activities for human and environmental well-being. Since a core element of addressing sustainability challenges requires attention to the material basis of society, a new paradigm for the practice of chemistry is needed. Chemistry education, especially gateway post-secondary general chemistry courses, should be guided by an understanding of the molecular basis of sustainability. A Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education framework illustrates one way to integrate knowledge about the molecular world with the sustainability of Earth and societal systems.

Fig. 1: Relationship between the global flow of chemical species containing reactive nitrogen and key UN SDGs.
Fig. 2: Relationships between the planetary carbon cycle and Earth system components in the Planetary Boundaries framework.
Fig. 3: Visualizing synergistic interrelationships among chemistry profession activities that analyse, transform and synthesize matter and the sustainability of Earth and societal systems.
Fig. 4: The STICE framework places chemistry learners at the centre of a system of learning interconnected through three nodes or subsystems.
Fig. 5: A new systems thinking visualization tool, called SOCME, illustrates some of the many interconnections among the web of topics involving the anthropogenic production of CO2 gas and its crucial role in the global carbon cycle.


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We thank the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC Project No. 2017-010-1–050) and the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (Project No. 2017-C4S-ST) for supporting this work, and the two dozen other members of the global IUPAC task force who have contributed to shaping the understanding of Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education.

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P.G.M. and S.A.M. co-chair the IUPAC project on Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education. All authors serve on the steering group for the IUPAC project, on the Earth & Societal Systems Node working group, and contributed to the writing and revision of the paper.

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Correspondence to Peter G. Mahaffy.

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Mahaffy, P.G., Matlin, S.A., Holme, T.A. et al. Systems thinking for education about the molecular basis of sustainability. Nat Sustain 2, 362–370 (2019).

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