Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education: A New Approach for a New (and Complex) School Year

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By: Sarah York & MaryKay Orgill, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The start of a new school year is always an exciting time. Campus is restored and polished. First-year students are nervous and bursting with energy. Upper-class students and faculty seem refreshed. It’s a time of renewal, a time of excitement, and a time for new friendships and new connections. It’s something we look forward to every year. For many of us, however, this year’s Back to School will look very different than it has in the past.


Instead of pushing our way through crowded pathways across campus to get to our next classes, we might be shuffling down the hallways in our own homes. Instead of engaging in lively discussions with colleagues around campus, we might be having conversations with ourselves while social distancing. The lecture hall full of 200 eager faces will be replaced with a screen of muted squares. From within the safety of our homes, we will grapple not just with teaching and learning chemistry, but with trying to understand the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its impact on worldwide social, political, and economic climates.


This is a complex time for the world, and it is a complex time for our students. How do we, as instructors, help our students make sense of the complexity they see each day? How do we keep them engaged in learning chemistry when there are so many distractions outside the classroom? How do we help them form meaningful connections in a time when we must connect at a distance? How do we empower our students to succeed in this complex world?


Systems Thinking


While there is clearly not any one solution that will solve all of the problems that we or our students will face this school year, recent calls for the integration of systems thinking into chemistry education seem timely. Systems thinking is “an approach for examining and addressing complex behaviors and phenomena from a holistic perspective.” In a recent publication, we argued that systems thinking is a tool for making sense of complex chemical phenomena; but it is just as much a tool for making sense of any complex system, phenomenon, or problem, including those we are encountering in this unique year.


Research suggests that systems thinking creates an environment for interdisciplinary learning and understanding, allowing students to make connections between concepts and between disciplines. This type of thinking allows students to learn content more deeply and more conceptually, while engaging in a number of important cognitive skills (Table 1). Importantly, proponents of systems thinking claim that this approach develops students’ problem solving and critical thinking skills, while empowering them with the knowledge required to effect change in complex systems—skills and abilities that seem absolutely essential in today’s world.


With benefits such as these, it is not surprising that systems thinking would be the focus of two symposia at the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute’s® 2020 Green Chemistry & Engineering Virtual Conference and the December 2019 special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education. The benefits of systems thinking are not only cognitive, though. Systems thinking has been shown to increase students’ motivation, engagement, and participation. Those of us who taught through the abrupt transition to remote instruction earlier this spring have no doubt heard students comment that they felt unmotivated and disconnected from the content, their peers, and their instructors during this time. What if a systems thinking approach could help our students feel more engaged and more motivated, even in a remote teaching and learning environment?



Table 1. ChEMIST Table: Characteristics Essential for Designing or Modifying Instruction

for a Systems Thinking Approach

(Reproduced with permission. 2020 American Chemical Society.)

A systems thinker

in chemistry education should…

                                                         Systems Thinking Skills*

Less Holistic………………………………………………………………………………………More Holistic

More Analytical/Elaborative…………………………………………………………...Less Analytical/Elaborative

Recognize a system as a whole, not just as a collection of parts

Identify the individual components and processes within a system

Examine the organization of components within the system

Examine a system as a unified whole

Examine the relationships between the parts of a system, and how those interconnections lead to cyclic system behaviors

Identify the ways in which components of a system are connected

Examine positive and negative feedback loops within a system

Identify and explain the causes of cyclic behaviors within a system

Identify variables that cause system behaviors, including unique system-level emergent behaviors

Identify the multiple variables that influence a given system-level behavior; Consider the potential effects of stochastic and “hidden” processes on the system-level behavior


Examine the relative, potentially nonlinear, effects that multiple identified variables have on a given system-level behavior

Identify, examine, and explain (to the extent possible) emergent system-level behaviors

Examine how system behaviors changes over time

Identify system-level behaviors that change over time

Describe how a given system-level behavior change over time

Use system-level behavior-over-time trends under one set of conditions to make predictions about system-level behavior-over-time trends under another set of conditions

Identify interactions between a system and its environment, including the human components of the environment

Identify and describe system boundaries

Consider possible effects of a system’s environment on the system’s behaviors; Consider how the system under study might be a component of and contribute to the behaviors of a larger system

Consider the role of human action on current and future system-level behaviors

* An understanding of complex systems requires both an understanding of the system as a whole and of the components of the system. “Holistic” refers to skills that focus primarily on the system as a whole. “Analytical/Elaborative” refers to skills that primarily focus on the components of a system—not as individual, disaggregated parts---but within the context of the system as a whole. Research suggests that students will benefit the most from systems thinking activities that include both holistic and analytical/elaborative skills.

Systems Thinking Implementation


The current challenge is to envision how a systems thinking approach might be implemented in a remote or virtual chemistry classroom environment. Many of the successful in-person implementations of systems thinking approaches in other STEM disciplines have involved the use of computer simulations. Thus, we believe that a systems thinking approach in chemistry education might be achieved in a remote or virtual environment through the use of online simulations of chemical phenomena.


Many such interactive simulations are readily available online (for example, those provided on the PhET Interactive Simulations website); and most remote learning students will have access to devices that can access these simulations. Instructors can leverage these resources to design systems thinking activities that can be implemented in either remote or in-person chemistry teaching and learning environments. In the Supporting Information for our recent publication, we have provided a discussion of how an instructor might go about designing such an activity.


The start of each school year is an opportunity for renewal and change. Why not take advantage of this time to try a new approach—a systems thinking approach—to motivate students, to engage students, and to help students learn the skills they need to be powerful agents of change in the complex world in which we live?