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Systems Thinking in the Chemistry Classroom: Preparing Global Citizens for a More Sustainable Future

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By Jenny MacKellar, Program Manager, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

As we move into our ninth month of social distancing and mask wearing, we look with hope towards the promise of emerging vaccines. We give thanks to the incredible work of teams of scientists, including chemists, who are developing these lifesaving preventive interventions. However, when we think towards the next steps of distribution of these vaccines, we start to see the incredible importance of a systems thinking approach. Who should receive the vaccine first? How will the vaccine be packaged? What are the supply chain implications of the packaging and delivery of the vaccine? How will the vaccine be transported and stored to ensure viability? To answer these questions requires an ever broadening systems lens as well as coordination across supply chains, manufacturers, distributors, medical professionals, public health officials, and even the general public. To address these types of multi-faceted issues, we need to prepare the next generation of global citizens to think in systems, identify appropriate leverage points, and design sustainable solutions.

In general chemistry and organic chemistry classes, the student population is broad and diverse, and students are pursuing a wide range of careers (medicine, biology, public health, education, engineering, etc.). The traditional approach to teaching chemistry does not do justice to the critical role of chemistry and chemists in creating sustainable solutions within a complex system.

Systems thinking in the chemistry classroom is a relatively new idea. If you are interested in learning more about this approach, check out our December 10 webinar, “Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education: Preparing Global Citizens for a Sustainable Future” (a recording will be available afterwards). Speakers MaryKay Orgill and Peter Mahaffy will describe the essential elements of systems thinking and how they can provide context for foundational chemistry knowledge and empower students to tackle grand challenges for a more sustainable future.

When we think about big ideas like systems thinking, it’s one thing to realize the importance and relevance of the topic, it’s quite another to try to bring them into the chemistry classroom. Upon completion of our first year of a three-year initiative here at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, we have laid the foundational work necessary to begin the process of developing systems thinking and green chemistry modules for general and organic chemistry courses. These modules will be developed by chemistry educators and will be grounded in foundational chemistry knowledge, using a systems thinking approach and infused with green chemistry principles and practices. The goal is to educate chemists to consider the system they are designing and to realize that they are operating within a larger system of systems where their choices can have wide reaching influence or impacts.

We received an overwhelming response to the call to join the module development teams. Over the next several weeks we will be reviewing the applications and forming the teams that will begin work in early January 2021. The module development teams will consist of chemistry educators who can develop and pilot materials in general and organic chemistry courses. They will be supported by assessment consultants, who will help ensure robust learning assessments are developed and that the modules meet the criteria outline in the module development rubric. All of the modules will be freely available for use after being piloted in the classroom, peer reviewed, and passing the module development rubric.

For more module development project updates, join our education email list, follow us on Twitter, and keep an eye out for new Nexus posts.