Project Details Learning Objectives and Strategies for Infusing Systems Thinking into (Post)-Secondary General Chemistry Education

Project No.:
Start Date:
01 May 2017
End Date:
18 December 2019


Recent high profile global initiatives highlight the crucial role of chemistry in finding solutions to multiple emerging global challenges. Progress toward solutions by the profession of chemistry will require a more visible and consistent integration of systems thinking into chemistry education at various levels. Students need guidance in seeing the relevance of their education in and through chemistry for addressing challenges such as sustainability, alternative energy, planetary boundaries, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This project brings together a distinguished task force of global chemistry and chemistry education leaders to articulate learning objectives for infusing systems thinking and sustainability considerations into the formal teaching of chemistry, with a primary focus on the gate-keeper general chemistry course at the post-secondary level. The project group will also suggest strategies to guide the use of these learning objectives in the design of curriculum and selection of engaging pedagogies. Broad consultation with global chemistry educators will be carried out to explore the most effective ways to move toward fuller infusion of systems thinking. The project group proposes to profile findings at the 2019 World Chemistry Congress in Paris during the IUPAC Centenary, in keeping with the strong emphasis at the IUPAC Centenary on highlighting ways for chemistry to contribute to solutions to present and future global challenges.


This project takes first steps at the global level to support and guide efforts at national and local levels by chemistry educators to equip their students to more visibly and meaningfully address multiple emerging global challenges through the application of chemistry at its many interfaces. To do so requires a new emphasis on student learning outcomes that incorporate systems thinking. (e.g. Matlin, S. A.; Mehta, G.; Hopf, H.; Krief, A. One-world chemistry and systems thinking, Nature Chemistry 2016, 8, 393-398;

Knowledge in chemistry is vital to address emerging challenges such as the threats to our planetary boundaries; the need to move more rapidly toward alternative energy in response to global climate change; antibiotic resistance; and meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Yet many chemistry students still experience education in chemistry as somewhat isolated from other systems, such as the biosphere, human and animal health, and economic and social systems. The IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE), at its Fall 2016 meeting discussed strategies for guiding and supporting changes to post-secondary chemistry curriculum so as to more meaningfully incorporate systems thinking to address these challenges. It was felt that this educational initiative would fit well with the broad goals of the IUPAC Centenary celebrations in 2019, in which IUPAC will play a visible role in preparing the global chemistry community for the future.

The primary focus of this project will be to articulate learning objectives and strategies to infuse systems thinking into the teaching of introductory chemistry at the post-secondary level (commonly called general chemistry). The initiative is organized as an IUPAC project to ensure that activities meet the highest standards, and bring the international attention and credibility needed to catalyze change. Post-secondary general chemistry courses were selected for the focus, because these courses serve both future chemists and many other future science, engineering, and health professionals. The impact of achieving even small changes in general chemistry curriculum would be multiplied, since these courses serve as gateway courses to so many science professions. The project group has also expressed an interest in exploring implications of systems approaches for teaching of secondary school chemistry, making use of this opportunity to also influence students in their more formative experiences of chemistry at the secondary level.

The project will be carried out in 5 phases, as follows:

Phase 1 – Literature Review: A literature review on approaches to and exemplars for the implementation of systems thinking in secondary and post-secondary chemistry education will be carried out to guide the work of the project group.

Phase 2 – Consultation with a Broad International Group of Chemistry Education Leaders: The project committee will identify and consult with a broad group of leaders in post-secondary chemistry education to: (a) assess the interest in and barriers to increasing the use of systems thinking in general chemistry, (b) gauge the extent to which systems thinking is already being used in general chemistry instruction; (c) identify exemplars and best practices for implementing systems thinking at both secondary and post-secondary levels; and (d) obtain buy-in by a larger group of individuals and organizations to help with disseminating and implementing the eventual learning objectives. This group of leaders will include individuals with assessment experience, experience in setting accreditation standards for post-secondary chemistry education programs, and with creating standardized examinations such as the ACS general chemistry examination. This initial phase of consultation will include one of the co-chairs consulting with chemists and chemistry educators, including IUPAC’s CCE at (a) the ACS Spring 2017 National Meeting (Mahaffy), (b) the Canadian Society for Chemistry June 2017 National Meeting (Mahaffy), and (c) The World Chemistry Conference in Sao Paulo in July 2017 and the CCE meeting at the 2017 IUPAC GA (Matlin), where the 1st project task group meeting will be held.

Phase 3 – Draft Learning Objectives, Exemplars for Assessable Student Learning Outcomes, and Strategies to Implement Project Outcomes: The project group will discuss the results of the consultation and articulate a set of draft learning objectives for general chemistry, along with exemplars for translating these objectives into assessable student learning outcomes and strategies to overcome the barriers that have been identified by the larger group. These draft materials will be submitted for peer review to the broader group of educators that was consulted.

Phase 4 – Project group meeting and workshop at 25th ICCE: The project group will meet to discuss the feedback obtained and will organize a symposium and workshop at the 25th International Conference on Chemistry Education, to be held in Sydney, Australia (2018) to present the work in progress and obtain feedback from the large representative group of global educators gathered at the ICCE meeting.

Phase 5 – Dissemination. After incorporating feedback obtained at the 2018 ICCE Conference and making revisions, the project group will publish the learning objectives, exemplars, and strategies in (a) one (or both) of the two leading chemistry education journals, the Journal of Chemical Education (ACS) and Chemistry Education Research and Practice (RSC); (b) a leading interdisciplinary science journal read widely by both chemists and other professionals, such as Nature Chemistry; and (c) Chemistry International, to communicate outcomes to others in the IUPAC community, including divisions and standing committees.

The final project meeting to discuss sustainability beyond this IUPAC project will be held at the CCE meetings during the IUPAC 2019 General Assembly. Project outcomes will be proposed as a feature symposium/activity to the organizers of the chemistry education program of the 2019 IUPAC World Chemistry Congress in Paris, which will be a centerpiece for the IUPAC Centenary celebrations. Chemistry educators will also be engaged in discussions of the results through presentations at national and regional chemistry education meetings in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.


Reorienting chemistry education through systems thinking”, Peter G. Mahaffy, Alain Krief, Henning Hopf, Goverdhan Mehta, and Stephen A. Matlin Nature Reviews Chemistry 2, Article number: 0126 (2018);

The next project milestone will be activities (a plenary talk, symposium, workshop, and a project meeting of the task force) at the 25th IUPAC International Conference on Chemistry Education (ICCE) in Sydney, 10-14 July 2018.


24 Sep 2018 update – The Journal of Chemical Education announces a call for papers for an upcoming special issue on Reimagining Chemistry Education: Systems Thinking, and Green and Sustainable Chemistry;


13 May 2019 update – published online today in Nature Sustainability: “Systems thinking for education about the molecular basis of sustainability“, by Peter G. Mahaffy, Stephen A. Matlin, Thomas A. Holme & Jennifer MacKellar Nature Sustainability volume 2, pp. 362–370 (2019);
Link to the Nature Sustainability Community “behind the paper” blog
Link to release (added 14 May)


Dec 2019 update –
“Next hundred years: systems thinking to educate about the molecular basis of sustainability”, by Peter Mahaffy and Stephen Matlin, L’ actualité chimique, N° 446, pp. 47-49 (Dec 2019); also released 11 Dec 2019) as on of the  IUPAC 100 Stories

The Special issue of  Journal of Chemical Education on Reimagining Chemistry Education: Systems Thinking, and Green and Sustainable has been released Dec 10 as Volume 96, Issue 12; pp 2679-3044. The editorial entitled “Can Chemistry Be a Central Science without Systems Thinking?” is co-authored by Peter G. Mahaffy, Felix M. Ho, Julie A. Haak, and Edward J. Brush;


Project completed

Fe 2020 update –
Part of a larger whole #systemsthinking , the project is echoed in Chemical and Engineering News, 3 Feb 2020 issue

Page last updated 3 Feb 2020