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Undergraduate Education

In these classrooms, chemistry is part of a larger whole

Chemistry educators are introducing systems thinking to help students see chemistry’s connections to the wider world

by Laura Howes and Sam Lemonick
February 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 5

Credit: Chris Gash


Almost anyone who has taken a chemistry course will tell you it can be a maddeningly complex subject. It comprises dozens of elements that can bond and interact in myriad ways, governed by several textbooks’ worth of laws and empirical rules. And that’s all before those chemicals interact with the world as medicines, poisons, materials, and pollutants.

In brief

A systems thinking approach to chemistry education asks students and teachers to think about the subject in new ways. Rather than teaching chemistry as a collection of discrete facts, systems thinking emphasizes the interactions between the components of a system, how they change over time, and the behaviors that arise from them. Systems thinking also examines the ways chemistry affects and is affected by outside forces, including economics, the environment, and people, a lens that mirrors many of the ideas of green chemistry. C&EN looks at recent efforts at three universities to introduce these concepts to undergraduates.

Chemistry courses—and chemistry educators—exist to help students understand the discipline and learn how to use its tools to learn about and alter their world. Beginning in the past few years, some educators and scholars have developed new ways to teach chemistry, using an approach called systems thinking. Its concepts dovetail with many of the precepts of green chemistry, encouraging students to look beyond the lab and see chemistry’s impacts on the world.

David J. C. Constable, science director of the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute, says educators have to teach systems thinking if they want to prepare students to make the world more sustainable. Chemists need to learn to think beyond their beakers, Constable says, to understand the system that extracts, purifies, and transports elements and chemicals to their labs.

He also thinks systems thinking could help boost chemistry enrollment by helping students see chemistry’s connections to global issues. He’s part of a small but growing number who believe the systems thinking approach could make a big difference in chemistry education.

“I don’t think we can be effective chemistry teachers without systems thinking,” says Thomas Holme of Iowa State University, who is editor in chief of the Journal of Chemical Education. (ACS publishes both the journal and C&EN.)

Some chemistry educators are now putting that assertion to the test. The case studies that follow examine efforts at three universities to integrate systems thinking and green chemistry concepts in introductory chemistry courses.

Systems thinking doesn’t have a single definition. It refers to a conceptual approach that recognizes that unique characteristics can arise from a collection of components interacting in a system. These interactions and the resulting behaviors can change over time and can affect and be affected by their environment.

In chemistry, bulk water is one example of this kind of system: a group of water molecules has characteristics, like surface tension, that arise from the interaction between these parts. And the bounds of this system can be expanded. They might include the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation, pollutants in waterways, or the effects of global warming on water masses.

Systems thinking approaches were formalized in Western science in the early 20th century as a way to understand biology and have since been applied to other fields, including economics. It’s just arriving to chemistry education, as evidenced by a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education published in December.

The theme that emerges from the special issue is “it’s time to reimagine the way we teach chemistry,” says Peter Mahaffy of the King’s University in Canada, one of the issue’s editors.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking has many definitions. MaryKay Orgill and Sarah York of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Jennifer MacKellar of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute highlight some key elements of systems thinking for chemists to focus on (J. Chem. Educ. 2019, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00169). These include the following:

Considering the system as a whole, not simply a collection of parts

Thinking about how a system’s behavior changes over time

Focusing on the variables that cause rather than correlate with system behavior

Exploring a system’s emergent properties caused by its organization and the interactions between its parts

Understanding how a system interacts with its environment, including with humans

Proponents of a systems thinking approach differentiate it from the status quo, which can be called a reductionist approach. The latter attempts to communicate chemists’ understanding of the world in discrete bits of knowledge, with the idea that those can be reconstructed to form the whole picture. But systems thinking advocates say research shows that students learn better when they encounter new information in context. They say systems thinking can help students learn and retain chemistry concepts by connecting them to concepts they might already be thinking about, like climate change or human health.

For students taking a chemistry class for the first time in their academic careers or for the last time on their way to a different degree, systems thinking can be particularly useful, its promoters say. That might be one reason the approach is seen most widely in introductory chemistry courses, where a majority of students often go on to study other fields.

Julie Haack of the University of Oregon stresses that systems thinking can be a way to introduce more diversity into chemistry and create opportunities to be more inclusive. She says making a discussion broader and more open can help more people see how the subject might apply to them and how they can participate.

Systems thinking is so new to chemistry classrooms that it’s hard to know how best to do it, according to experts. Holme, Mahaffy, and Haack say it’s too early to start prescribing best practices. Mahaffy says the Journal of Chemical Education special issue has given systems thinking proponents an opportunity to start formalizing systems thinking approaches for chemistry for the first time.

There are also questions about how to assess the effectiveness of using systems thinking, which Mahaffy and Holme readily admit. Holme has been experimenting with writing assignments, which he says help him see if students are able to make connections between different concepts. But he recognizes that evaluating those assignments isn’t always possible in large general chemistry courses.

Mahaffy has asked students to draw mental maps of different concepts to assess their understanding of systems thinking. He says teaching educators how to assess systems thinking is just as important as developing ways to teach the concept. “If we reimagine the curriculum but not the assessments, then students realize it’s fluff,” he says.

That these curricula are still in an experimental phase is easy to see over the next several pages. Each institution has chosen different ways to introduce students to green chemistry and systems thinking. A professor at the University of Michigan–Flint is using that city’s ongoing water pollution crisis and other local issues to help students connect with introductory chemistry topics. The University of California, Berkeley, has developed a new laboratory curriculum for its introductory chemistry course, which about 2,000 students take each year. And at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, two professors have used systems thinking to create a new introductory chemistry curriculum based on the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Systems thinking and green chemistry are still works in progress in chemistry classrooms, but Haack says she hopes that will attract educators to the topic rather than deter them. Systems thinking is “like a wide open space” in chemistry right now, she says, and she wants educators to feel like they can contribute to efforts to develop and improve systems thinking curricula. “Come on in, and let’s figure it out,” Haack says.

Read on for three case studies examining how chemistry departments are introducing systems thinking to undergraduates.


Think locally

In Flint, systems thinking connects chemistry to the water crisis

Students are learning how chemistry fits into local issues

by Sam Lemonick
Credit: UM-Flint
The University of Michigan–Flint's Nicholas Kingsley is using systems thinking to connect general chemistry topics to local issues.

In April 2014, officials in Flint, Michigan, decided to start treating the city’s drinking water locally. But they failed to add corrosion inhibitors to the water sent through ancient pipes to homes and businesses, and Flint residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, as well as bacteria and other pollutants. Problems and aftereffects persist to this day.

Some students in Nicholas Kingsley’s general chemistry course at the University of Michigan–Flint are acutely aware of the city’s water crisis. A few experienced it themselves. This year Kingsley is figuring out for the first time how to use systems thinking to connect introductory chemistry topics to the crisis and other local issues.

“Only three or four of my students are chemistry majors,” Kingsley says. When he uses systems thinking in his course, the approach helps the whole class grasp the importance of the concepts they’re learning, he says. No stranger to green chemistry, Kingsley is the adviser for the university’s green chemistry degree.

Kingsley brought up the water crisis this fall during his course’s unit on solubility rules. When the city water utility decided to forgo phosphate corrosion inhibitors, disinfectant chlorides exposed water pipes’ metal walls, and oxidation released soluble lead and other metals into the water. Kingsley used the example to explain soluble and insoluble species. He also tied lead levels back to an earlier unit on molarity, asking students how they would judge the safety of different lead concentrations.

We’re learning chemistry and policy and how they all interplay with society or economics.
Shelly Maxwell, student, University of Michigan–Flint

Introducing the water crisis was an opportunity to talk about “why solubility rules are worth learning,” Kingsley says. But he didn’t limit the discussion to chemistry. Kingsley also talked about the system of political, economic, and management factors that helped cause the crisis. And he asked the students to discuss ways similar pollution could be avoided in the future.

Kingsley thinks systems thinking is benefiting his classroom. “I know that seems like maybe too much to have as a conversation when we’re just talking about solubility rules, but I would say I certainly had all their attention,” he says.

He has used systems thinking to frame other units too. When he introduced thermodynamic concepts like heat of combustion, he asked the class to think about energy production and use in the US. The university draws many of its students from the farmland that surrounds the city, so some students are well aware that corn can be used to make ethanol to supplement gasoline fuel. Kingsley showed his class how to calculate the energy available in ethanol compared with other fuels. Then, broadening the scope of the discussion, he asked them to think about whether it made sense to use a food crop as an energy source in light of global hunger issues.

Kingsley’s students seem to be grasping the ideas of systems thinking. The class isn’t just about chemistry as it applies to reactions, says Shelly Maxwell, who’s preparing to start a physician’s assistant program. “We’re learning chemistry and policy and how they all interplay with society or economics.”

Kingsley is still experimenting with how to use systems thinking in the classroom and how to judge its benefit. He says he found that he didn’t have the right tools to assess systems thinking concepts directly, but he’s talking to colleagues in sociology and anthropology about the ways they assess systems thinking assignments. And he asked his students for feedback about his efforts in their end-of-semester evaluations. But one metric of his success as a teacher, he says, is when students have conversations about chemistry with their parents, spouses, or friends.

Maxwell says that’s been happening with her husband, who works with high-voltage electrical equipment. After her classes, she’s been talking to her husband about SF6, an electrical insulator. She says she’s now able to talk to him about SF6 as a greenhouse gas. Maxwell says that because she comes from outside chemistry, understanding these topics doesn’t necessarily come natural to her. But she says Kingsley’s systems thinking approach—incorporating real-world topics into his lectures and examining the interplay between chemistry and other subjects—is making a difference for students like her.


Teaching green chemistry earlier

Integrating green chemistry into gen chem

For first-year undergraduates at Berkeley, general chemistry means green chemistry

by Laura Howes
Credit: Courtesy of Anne Baranger
Laura Armstrong (from left), Lauren Irie, Anne Baranger, and Michelle Douskey of University of California, Berkeley, examine the results of an octanol-water partitioning experiment.

An injection of cash helped the University of California, Berkeley, reform its general chemistry lab instruction. Back in 2012, the College of Chemistry got a gift of money from the Dow Chemical Company Foundation. Most of the funds were used to completely renovate the teaching labs, adding new equipment and modern instrumentation. But, says Anne M. Baranger, UC Berkeley’s director of undergraduate chemistry, $1 million was earmarked for developing a new teaching curriculum to match the labs. And the focus was on sustainability.

The result, which has been up and running since fall 2016, is a general chemistry lab curriculum that focuses on green chemistry. Rather than waiting to introduce green chemistry later—for example, in more advanced organic chemistry classes—the revamped lab introduces the concepts of green chemistry earlier, integrating them into the experiments and tests that make up the laboratory for general chemistry for nonchemistry majors (Chem 1AL). At Berkeley, about 2,000 students a year take Chem 1AL. For many of those students, Chem 1AL might be the last bit of chemistry they are taught.

As Baranger points out, “Students themselves care a lot about the environment.” That is why, she says, the Berkeley team decided to use green chemistry as a framework.

“The idea was that we would kind of impact all of these students and give them some things that they could bring with them as they moved on in their careers,” Baranger says. Even if they don’t become chemists or do anything with science, she hopes her students will still have “that kind of understanding and knowledge [of green chemistry] that could be really helpful as citizens.”

But of course, the curriculum still needed to deliver the college’s general chemistry learning goals. So Chem 1AL is a modular system, and different modules in the course have different amounts of green chemistry content.

Baranger and her team have arranged the modules around themes or topics and designed 30 new experiments that introduce students to green chemistry concepts and applications. Baranger says the approach also helps add continuity to the new curriculum by adding overall context to frame things that change from week to week, so that there is more continuity.

Chemistry undergraduates helped with the redesign, developing and optimizing the experiments in the course. Nearly every new experiment was designed to use fewer hazardous chemicals, produce less waste or only nontoxic waste, and use renewable resources whenever possible, Baranger says.

The greatest amount of green chemistry content is found in the 3-week biofuels module. During the first week of this module, the students make standard dilutions of several biofuels and prepare a simple assay to quantify the ecotoxicity of each of the fuels. In the second week, students synthesize biodiesel from soybean oil, isolate their samples, and determine the heat of combustion of their synthesized biodiesel. At the end, the students compare biodiesel and one other biofuel to make an argument for the best alternative transportation fuel.

But what do the students make of the curriculum? Online tests and in-class assignments show that students believe their understanding of green chemistry has changed. And other data show that students have more sophisticated definitions of green chemistry after completing the course, identifying and describing more components of green chemistry.

Incorporating green chemistry into all the laboratory work rather than teaching it as a separate subject gives the new curriculum three advantages, Baranger says. First, it shows students taking general chemistry that green chemistry and general chemistry are integrated with each other. Second, it provides an authentic context for the general chemistry laboratory curriculum to make the course more engaging and meaningful for the students. Third, it provides a more complex, systems thinking approach to the topics in general chemistry, allowing students to see chemistry as an interconnected system rather than a field with a single correct answer.

“It’s a really interesting way to help people think less black and white, which is really important in any area of chemistry or science,” Baranger says.


Sustainable systems

Sustainable systems in general chemistry

At the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, chemistry teaching is linked to the UN sustainable development goals

by Laura Howes
Credit: Stephen McNeil
At the start of the course, students at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus work collaboratively to identify how chemistry might help address the United Nations sustainable development goals.


At the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, two chemistry teachers have used systems thinking to help them redesign their general chemistry curriculum around the United Nations sustainable development goals (UN SDGs).

The small campus and team have meant that W. Stephen McNeil and Tamara K. Freeman have had a lot of flexibility in their work, according to McNeil. They’ve been revising all aspects of the general chemistry curriculum since around 2013. That course is taken by between 750 and 800 first-year science students annually. In the past, the course has lacked context to explain the relevance of chemistry in the students’ everyday lives, McNeil says. So he and Freeman, who is the first-year coordinator at the Okanagan campus, decided to rebuild the curriculum from scratch. To help them do that, the pair turned to the UN SDGs: 17 topics that the UN has identified as important for building a sustainable world.

“We’re not the first people to realize this,” McNeil says, “but the United Nations sustainable development goals are a really rich thematic framework that we thought that we could make use of.”

So that’s where the pair started. Their aim, McNeil explains, was to get students to realize that chemistry is a human endeavor that can help solve the SDGs as well as be part of problems such as pollution and climate change. They recognized that just telling the students about chemistry’s importance wouldn’t be enough. “We wanted to give our students opportunities to explore for themselves,” McNeil says.

Credit: Stephen McNeil
Students at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus work together on activities linking what they have learned to the United Nations sustainable development goals.

The two began by developing a vision of what the new course might be. Rather than try to do it all at once, “we worked toward it incrementally,” McNeil says. Using systems thinking, they slowly developed the curriculum by “introducing small changes each year and then building upon them.”

The work is a little like a retrosynthesis in organic chemistry, according to McNeil. The pair picked an SDG and then tried to find topics or themes that could be linked to that goal; they then chose chemical concepts applicable to those topics. For example, six SDGs are related to the topic of ozone and chlorofluorocarbons, and that can be linked to several chemical concepts.

This new approach has changed the content of the course—for example, adding spectroscopy and other analytical ideas that McNeil says traditionally don’t show up in a first-year curriculum but can provide evidence to the students.

We haven’t landed yet on a single operational definition of what systems thinking means or within the context of chemistry education what it should imply in terms of our practice.
W. Stephen McNeil, chemistry professor, University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus

Freeman and McNeil have also changed the delivery of the course to fit the SDG framework. After introducing different concepts, for example, the teachers give the students time to reflect and put the concepts into context. “There are points in the course where we pause for a moment and say, ‘OK, let’s think about everything we’ve just been discussing for the last 4–6 weeks and talk about an issue,” McNeil explains.

For example, students first learn about gas laws and kinetic molecular theory, introductory spectroscopy and Lewis structures, resonance, and the correlation of bond order with chemical bond strengths. Then the teaching pauses and McNeil or Freeman introduces a case study looking at the role of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration and the depletion of the ozone layer.

According to McNeil, these case studies were originally designed to add context to what the students were learning, but through surveys and interviews with students, they found that the students believe the activities also help reinforce learning.

While systems thinking strongly guided the development of the case study exercises and the SDG framework, Freeman and McNeil have not explicitly included the development of systems thinking skills as learning objectives for their course. However, they suspect some of those skills are developed by the students anyway.

And that ambiguity highlights what McNeil describes as a point of tension among chemistry educators. “We haven’t landed yet on a single operational definition of what systems thinking means or within the context of chemistry education what it should imply in terms of our practice,” he says. “There is a diversity of approach and a diversity of interpretation.”



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