Imagine you’re a first-year chemistry student. What does your semester of General Chemistry look like? Well, it’s usually heavily content driven – after all, there’s a lot of theoretical science to learn. The fundamentals of molecular science is a long list of concepts, and while we teach our students at the molecular level, they also need a whole-picture understanding to contextualise their studies.

Without a certain level of connectivity, the fundamentals of their chemistry experience in the lab can feel completely disconnected to the world beyond the lab. Dr Gwen Lawrie, Professor of Chemistry and researcher in chemistry education at the University of Queensland, is keeping a keen eye on how students transfer learnings into complex systems. To Dr Lawrie, a key aspect of STEM education is the opportunity to help students see how they can make a difference in the world.

Dr Lawrie reminds us, “Chemistry students often don’t feel they have agency in big world issues, like climate change.” When most students are driven by the aspiration to make a difference, what can we do to ensure they can understand the bigger picture?

What is Systems Thinking and why is it important?

This is where Systems Thinking enters the sphere of chemistry and other STEM subjects. It’s an approach that’s gaining momentum because Systems Thinking can provide an invaluable framework for contextualising theoretical science in global challenges.

This holistic approach helps us stop and consider the inter-relationships and connectivity of individual parts in any given system. In the study of sciences, we need to think about the impact our actions can have on a system of interrelated components. These may be environmental, social, economic or other. Once we view our work in relation to the whole system components, rather than in isolation, we can identify cause and effect of our actions.

In relation to chemistry, Dr Lawrie explains, “consider a molecular view of sustainability. We only have a finite resource of most atoms on the planet. Systems Thinking in chemistry helps us consider the origin and destination on atoms, how they are bonded and rearranged, and the ‘butterfly effect’ of our actions in a complex system.”

The movement towards Green Chemistry aligns with Systems Thinking. Green Chemistry ensures we’re not just focusing on outcomes in the laboratory, but also implementing principles of sustainability, and being mindful of the social and economic, as well as environmental consequences when transforming matter: the by-products and waste.

Students need context

We now recognise that students need graduate skills to be able to engage with bigger picture issues and understand the relationship between society, environment and science. Students need to develop an understanding – what they’re learning isn’t just a concept in isolation or with a context layered on top. Rather, they need to link together theories, empirical data, time-dependency and ideas to create a whole picture.  Connectivity is the key.

Dr Lawrie reminds us that, for chemistry students, “we should teach a chemical reaction, and then consider how it is connected to the origin and destination of the substances involved in the process.”

She relates this to a well-known example: the production of ammonia.

In accordance with the Born-Haber Cycle, nitrogen is fixed from the air and used to synthesise ammonia, which is then chemically changed into fertiliser. This is used to help crops grow, which in turn helps feed the world. The connectivity in this example is truly global thinking and can be explicitly taught alongside the theory.

Helping students see the bigger picture

STEM courses need a balance of content and links to real world examples involving the role of human activity. As the co-author of Chemistry: Core Concepts (Blackman et al), Dr Lawrie’s research in chemistry education continues to inform teaching strategies to respond to students’ needs. Likewise, as we look to the future, it’s likely that more STEM publications will incorporate Systems Thinking.