Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Perspective
  • Published:

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Anastas, P. T. & Zimmerman, J. B. The molecular basis of sustainability. Chem 1, 10–12 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Anastas, P. T. & Zimmerman, J. B. The United Nations Sustainability Goals: How can sustainable chemistry contribute? Curr. Opin. Green. Sustain. Chem. 13, 150–153 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Stein, L. Y. & Klotz, M. G. The nitrogen cycle. Curr. Biol. 26, R94–R98 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Erisman, J. W., Sutton, M. A., Galloway, J., Klimont, Z. & Winiwarter, W. How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nat. Geosci. 1, 636–639 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 736–747 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Olivier J. G. J., Janssens-Maenhout, G., Muntean, M. & Peters, J. A. H. W. Trends in Global CO 2 Emissions: 2016 Report PBL publication number: 2315 (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2016).

  7. Camilo, M. et al. Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 1062–1071 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Sjostrom, J. & Talanquer, V. Eco-reflexive chemical thinking and action. Curr. Opin. Green. Sustain. Chem. 13, 16–20 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Axon, S. & James, D. The UN Sustainable Development Goals: how can sustainable chemistry contribute? A view from the chemical industry. Curr. Opin. Green. Sustain. Chem. 13, 140–145 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Constable, D. J. C. The practice of chemistry still needs to change. Curr. Opin. Green. Sustain. Chem. 7, 60–62 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Matlin, S. A., Mehta, G., Hopf, H. & Krief, A. The role of chemistry in inventing a sustainable future. Nat. Chem. 7, 941–943 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Matlin, S. A., Mehta, G., Hopf, H. & Krief, A. One-world chemistry and systems thinking. Nat. Chem. 8, 393–396 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Mahaffy, P. G. in Chemistry Education: Best Practices, Innovative Strategies and New Technologies (eds Garcia-Martinez, J. & Serrano, E.) 3−26 (Wiley VCH, 2015).

  14. Luxford, C. J. & Holme, T. A. What do conceptual holes in assessment say about the topics we teach in general chemistry? J. Chem. Educ. 92, 993–1002 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Reed, J. J., Villafane, S. M., Raker, J. R., Holme, T. A. & Murphy, K. L. What we don't test: what an analysis of unreleased ACS exam items reveals about content coverage in general chemistry assessments. J. Chem. Educ. 94, 418–428 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Burmeister, M., Rauch, F. & Eilks, I. Education for sustainable development (ESD) and chemistry education. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 13, 59–68 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Holme, T. A. & Hutchison, J. E. A central learning outcome for the central science. J. Chem. Educ. 95, 499–501 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Wheeler, K. in Education for a Sustainable Future (eds Wheeler, K. A. & Bijur, A. P.) 1–5 (Kluwer, 2000).

  19. de Haan, G. The BLK ‘21’ programme in Germany: a ‘Gestaltungskompetenz’‐based model for education for sustainable development. Env. Educ. Res. 12, 19–32 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Jegstad, K. M. & Sinnes, A. T. Chemistry teaching for the future: a model for secondary chemistry education for sustainable development. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 37, 655–683 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Kanapathy, S. et al. Sustainable development concept in the chemistry curriculum. An exploration of foundation students’ perspective. Int. J. Sust. High. Educ. 20, 2–22 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Bennett, J. & Holman, J. in Chemical Education: Towards Research-Based Practice (eds Gilbert, J. K. et al.) Ch. 8, 165–184 (Science & Technology Education Library, Springer, 2002).

  23. Gilbert, J. K. On the nature of “context” in chemical education. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 28, 957–976 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Bulte, A. M. W., Westbroek, H. B., de Jong, O. & Pilot, A. A research approach to designing chemistry education using authentic practices as contexts. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 28, 1063–1086 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Dori, Y. J., Avargil, S., Kohen, Z. & Saar, L. Context-based learning and metacognitive prompts for enhancing scientific text comprehension. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 40, 1198–1220 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Habig, S. et al. Context characteristics and their effects on students’ situational interest in chemistry. Int. J. Sci. Educ. 40, 1154–1175 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Mahaffy, P. G., Krief, A., Hopf, H., Mehta, G. & Matlin, S. A. Reorienting chemistry education through systems thinking. Nat. Rev. Chem. 2, 1–3 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Frank, H. et al. Ethics, chemistry, and education for sustainability. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 50, 8482–8490 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Green Chemistry in the Curriculum (American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training, 2018).

  30. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2012).

  31. Holme, T. A. & Murphy, K. The ACS Exams Institute undergraduate chemistry anchoring concepts content map I: General Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 89, 721–723 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. Holme, T. A., Luxford, C. & Murphy, K. Updating the General Chemistry Anchoring Concepts Content Map. J. Chem. Educ. 92, 1115–1116 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519–525 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Boardman, J. & Sauser, B. Systemic Thinking : Building Maps for World Systems (Wiley, 2013).

  35. Jones, C. S. et al. Iowa statewide stream nitrate load calculated using in situ sensor network. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 54, 471–486 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Galloway, J. N. & Cowling, E. B. Reactive nitrogen and the world: 200 years of change. Ambio 31, 64–71 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Nørskov, J. & Chen, J. Sustainable Ammonia Synthesis (US Department of Energy, 2016).

  38. Mahaffy, P. G. et al. Beyond “inert” ideas to teaching general chemistry from rich contexts: visualizing the chemistry of climate change (VC3). J. Chem. Educ. 94, 1027–1035 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Mahaffy, P. G., Brush, E. J., Haack, J. A. & Ho, F. M. Journal of Chemical Education call for papers—special issue on reimagining chemistry education: systems thinking, and green and sustainable chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 95, 1689–1691 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. Ye, L., Nayak-Luke, R., Banares-Alcantara, R. & Tsang, E. Reaction: “Green” ammonia production. Chem 3, 712–714 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. Fowler, D. et al. The global nitrogen cycle in the twenty-first century. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 368, 20130164 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Smil, V. Detonator of the population explosion. Nature 400, 415 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Yoho, R. A. & Rittmann, B. E. Climate change and energy technologies in undergraduate introductory science. Environ. Commun. 12, 731–743 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Pikaar, I. et al. Microbes and the next nitrogen revolution. Environ. Sci. Technol. 51, 7297–7303 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter G. Mahaffy.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing