An Interactive Session on Moving from Context to Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education

Organizers: Thomas Holme, Iowa State University; Peter Mahaffy, Kings University

The concept of incorporating context to help motivate student interest in and learning of chemistry has a rich history. While there are efforts both in the US and internationally to develop chemistry curricula in terms of such context-based learning, these efforts have often been directed outside of the curriculum that students intending to become chemists take. In such major courses, such as General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry, context still finds its way into the classroom, but it is arguably less broadly organized and therefore more strongly dependent on specific interests and specialties of individual instructors.

At the same time, recent efforts organized through the auspices of IUPAC have begun to call attention to the possibilities of enhancing student exposure to systems thinking within the chemistry curriculum. Systems thinking emphasizes the interdependence of components of dynamic systems. In the context of chemistry, systems thinking moves beyond isolated consideration of reactions and processes to consider where materials come from, how they are transformed and used, and what happens at the end of their life span. It draws attention to a need to balance the benefits and impacts of chemical substances and the role they play in societal and environmental systems. Applied to STEM education, systems thinking describes approaches that move beyond fragmented and reductionist knowledge of disciplinary content to a more integrated and holistic understanding of the field.

The expansion of context-based learning into systems thinking represents an important way to think about how students learn to use their chemistry knowledge. Significant advantages for the teaching and learning of green and sustainable chemistry is possible by such a merging of the two ideas for including content that extends chemistry beyond the classroom or the lab bench. This workshop is designed to allow participants to first identify ways in which they have incorporated context-based approaches in their own teaching. It will then present exemplars of how such contexts can be woven into a systems thinking approach, making use of systems visualization tools such as System-Oriented_Concept_Map-Extensions (SOCME), illustrating how to help students zoom out from the scope of what might be traditionally covered to see cross-cutting dimensions and interconnections with green chemistry and engineering approaches and broader societal and environmental considerations.. Finally, participants will have opportunity to work through exercises that connect prior experience with context-based learning to a larger system context.