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Chemical Sciences in Development

Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education - Introduction

Systems Thinking: Implications for Chemistry Education
At the end of the 20th century, Fourez asked the question: Do we teach biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, or do we teach young people how to cope with their own world? Answering this question has led science educators to a rethinking of scientific literacy and thinking about science education as in terms of ‘participation in the community’.
This approach resonates well with the concept of ‘one-world’ chemistry (OWC). In 2016, the IOCD group Chemists for Sustainability published a paper on OWC in which they proposed that chemistry needs to be reoriented as a science for the benefit of society, tackling global challenges and contributing to sustainable development. To do so, they argued that chemistry needs to adopt systems thinking.
What are the implications for how chemistry is taught? OWC does NOT argue for the abandonment of teaching individual sciences in favour of an undifferentiated ‘general science’. It DOES argue for:
  • Stressing the unity of scientific principles and thought processes from the earliest stages of science education;
  • The development of a clear and deep understanding of the principles and practice of chemistry as a science in its own right, that constitutes a unified system;
  • Embedding in chemistry education, from a very early stage, a growing awareness of the ways that chemistry interconnects with other disciplines; the way that chemistry can be used to understand, explain and tackle problems in the physical and biological domains of world around us; and the way that chemistry and other disciplines can work together to develop a collective and comprehensive view of how physical and biological systems behave, interact and affect one another.
OWC especially stresses that:
Systems thinking is essential in the teaching, learning and practice of chemistry. This must recognize that human and animal health and the biological and physical environments of the planet are all intimately connected systems and that the solutions that chemistry develops to contemporary challenges must be informed by an awareness of the interactions between these systems.

The Value of Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education

A number of benefits can be anticipated from the incorporation of systems thinking into chemistry education, including:
  • Viewing chemistry itself as a system can help 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;
  • Connecting chemistry with real-world contexts can help to make the discipline more attractive to potential students;
  • Acquiring skills in systems thinking can help those in the chemical sciences to tackle the sustainability challenges faced by the world, which involve the interactions with planetary and societal systems;
  • The learner develops skills in thinking on a system scale and 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 students of chemistry who do not go on to work in the discipline.


  1. G. Fourez. Scientific and technological literacy as a social practice. Social Studies of Science,1997, 27, 903-936.
  2. W.-M. Roth, S. Lee. Science Education as/for Participation in the Community. Sci Ed 2004, 88, 263-291.
  3. S. A. Matlin, G. Mehta, H. Hopf, A. Krief. ‘One-world’ chemistry and systems-thinking. Nature Chemistry 2016, 8, 393-6.
  4. P. G. Mahaffy, A. Krief, H. Hopf, G. Mehta, S. A. Matlin. Reorienting chemistry education through systems thinking. Nature Reviews Chemistry 2018, 2, 1-3. doi:10.1038/s41570.018.0126.
Definitions and Tools
Systems thinking:is a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviours, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects. These skills work together as a system.
Terms included in the definition are themselves defined as the following:
Systems:Groups or combinations of interrelated, interdependent, or interacting elements forming collective entities.
Synergistic: The interaction of elements in a way that, when combined, produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements.
Analytical skills:Skills that 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.
The field of chemistry is a dynamic system with 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 and localised (e.g. a reaction in a laboratory vessel) or large and diffuse (e.g. carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere). Moreover, 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 both beneficial and harmful effects on biological, ecological, physical, societal and other systems.

As noted by IOCD's group Chemists for Sustainability, despite these interconnections, systems thinking is relatively unfamiliar to chemists and chemistry educators – unlike the situation in other fields such as biology and engineering. The learning objectives for chemistry programmes at both the high school and university level rarely include substantial and explicit emphasis on strategies that move beyond understanding isolated chemical reactions and processes to envelop systems thinking.

A number of tools can assist with systems thinking, including ‘forest thinking’ (looking beyond the trees to see the wider picture), problem-based approaches to learning, and learning in rich contexts. In addition, there are several visualization tools that can help to understand and explore components within a system, how these interact with one another and how the system as a whole may interact with other systems. Visualization approaches include concept maps, stock-flow diagrams and systemigrams. The STICE project has generated a new tool specifically tailored to visualization of systems thinking in chemistry — the Systems-Oriented Concept map Extension (SOCME). For details, see below and here.


  1. R. D. Arnold, J. P. Wade. A Definition of Systems Thinking: A Systems Approach. Procedia Computer Science 2015;44:669-678.
  2. D. H. Meadows. Thinking in systems: A Primer. D Wright (ed.), Earthscan, London 2009.
  3. P. G. Mahaffy, A. Krief, H. Hopf, G. Mehta, S. A. Matlin. Reorienting chemistry education through systems thinking. Nature Reviews Chemistry 2018, 2, 1-3. doi:10.1038/s41570.018.0126.
  4. P. G. Mahaffy, B. E. Martin. M. Kirchhoff, L. McKenzie,T.Holme, A. Versprille, M. Towns. Infusing Sustainability Science Literacy through Chemistry Education: Climate Science as a Rich Context for Learning Chemistry. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2014, 2 (11), 2488-2494, DOI: 10.1021/sc500415k.
  5. J. Boardman, B. Sauser. Systems Thinking: Coping with 21st century problems. CRC Press 2008.
  6. P.G. Mahaffy, S.A. Matlin, T. A. Holme, J. MacKellar. Systems thinking for educating about the molecular basis of sustainability. Nature Sustainability 2019, 2, 362-370, doi: 10.1038/s41893-019-0285-3.
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