Systems Thinking for Education about the Molecular Basis of Sustainability

I was startled when I first learned two things about the nitrogen atoms that are elemental building blocks for amino acids and many other essential molecules my body needs for everyday life.
Systems Thinking for Education about the Molecular Basis of Sustainability

First, that half of those nitrogen atoms in my body passed at some point through a single industrial process – the Haber-Bosch reaction to turn nitrogen molecules from the atmosphere into ammonia – a process that Fritz Haber described as turning air into bread. Second, and even more startling, that almost all of the nitrogen atoms converted into ammonia and applied to a farmer’s field are wasted as a result of agricultural and environmental processing before they enter my mouth at breakfast. 

Some of the substances into which they are converted cause substantial environmental harm. As an academic who is also a grandfather, envisioning and working for a sustainable future inevitably takes a personal turn. So it has become a priority to educate the next generation about the central role planetary cycles of matter and energy play in global sustainability agendas. 

(Granddaughter Briar assembling amino acids, photo by Peter Mahaffy)

Neither of those important learnings were a part of my own formative education as a professional chemist. My experience of chemistry education as a high school and university student was largely an encounter with a maze of isolated facts, concepts, principles, and reactions. Nowhere in formal curriculum was I invited to explore the threads that interconnect atoms and molecules to earth and societal systems, such as the agricultural processes that bring food to my plate. 

(Photo of Alberta canola field by Daniel Krol, research student at the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science)

Our Perspective article highlights ways in which the flow of materials and energy is at the heart of sustainability agendas such as the Planetary Boundaries Framework and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As a chemistry educator, I read with great interest in 2009 the Nature paper on Planetary Boundaries by Rockström and collaborators. I noted that many of the control variables for the nine earth systems under this framework involve measurements of chemical substances and a fundamental understanding of systems of chemical reactions and processes. Similarly, fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goals requires knowledge of and contributions from the practice of chemistry, whose primary activities are to synthesize, transform, and analyze matter. Yet many chemistry educators and chemists have little familiarity with how their teaching and practice of chemistry might contribute to achieving such global sustainability agendas.

A promising approach to help chemistry educators connect knowledge about the molecular world more integrally to earth and societal sustainability is systems thinking. The group ‘Chemists for Sustainability’ at the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) first proposed in 2016 that systems thinking should be seen as an indispensable tool to enable chemistry education and practice to optimise their contributions to sustainability. Two dozen global thought leaders in chemistry and chemistry education have formed an International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) task force, which is also supported by IOCD, to develop ways to use systems thinking in chemistry education. Our goal is to help the chemistry community move toward teaching and practice that offers a more holistic understanding of how chemistry connects to our world’s complex socio-economic, technological, and environmental systems. In this paper, we illustrate ways in which chemistry educators and learners can use systems thinking to connect those nitrogen atoms we all have for breakfast with global challenges and emerging solutions.

It has been a privilege to work with co-authors Stephen Matlin from IOCD; Tom Holme, the incoming editor of the Journal of Chemical Education; and Jenny MacKellar at the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute to move forward the IUPAC project by unpacking the molecular basis of sustainability and exploring how this central theme can inform teaching and practice. 

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