Project Details Systems Thinking in Chemistry for Sustainability: Toward 2030 and Beyond (STCS 2030+)

Project No.:
Start Date:
01 September 2020
End Date:


Systems thinking (ST) is one of five key competencies identified as essential for a sustainable future.

(1) Highlight and support chemistry education’s contributions to strengthening the centrality of chemistry as a sustainability science, engaging with IYBSD 2022 to incorporate ST as a fundamentally important approach to support integrating human needs and science in the service of planetary sustainability.
(2) Formulate recommendations to guide use of ST in chemistry education; and establish and maintain for at least the duration of the project a website to facilitate uptake.
(3) Initiate discussions with COCI to explore (a) ways chemical industry can contribute to outcomes of the IYBSD, (b) ways chemical industry views systems thinking and its incorporation into chemistry education, and (c) the potential for mechanisms to increase the capacity of industry to incorporate ST.


As the material basis of society and sustainability, chemistry has a compelling role to play as the world approaches 2030, the target date for attaining the UNSDGs. But new approaches to both the design of chemical reactions and processes and to chemistry and the other basic sciences will be needed to make more rapid progress. It will also be crucial that the basic sciences work together to achieve sustainability goals, and systems thinking can facilitate this process. The challenges continue beyond 2030 when considering how to meet global sustainability challenges such as the climate commitments by 2050 in the Paris accord. IUPAC, whose mission is to “develop the essential tools for the application and communication of chemical knowledge for the benefit of humankind and the world,” is well positioned to visibly help to lead efforts to redefine and expand the central role for the global chemistry profession in addressing global sustainability agendas. The rapidly emerging area of systems thinking in chemistry shows strong potential as a framework to help guide and support IUPAC in giving leadership to and through chemistry as the world approaches 2030, 2050, and beyond. Systems thinking (ST) is one of five key competencies identified as essential for a sustainable future. (Wiek et. al., 2011)

A recently completed IUPAC project (project 2017-010-1-050) has established the importance of systems thinking (ST) in chemistry education (STICE), both as a way of integrating the fragmented knowledge and understanding of chemistry that is typical in many 1st year chemistry courses, and as a means to elucidate the interconnections between chemistry and Earth and societal systems needed to address the compelling 21st Century challenges of sustainable development. The STICE project catalyzed considerable global momentum, with wide dissemination at national and international conferences, publication in Nature journals, 43 contributed papers to the December 2019 special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education, and a feature cover story in the February 3, 2020, issue of Chemical & Engineering News.

This project builds on the momentum and success of the IUPAC STICE project to guide an interwoven program of work to extend systems thinking into three coherent strands focused on (a) sustainability, (b) formal chemistry education, and (c) chemical industry. An important motivation for the project will be to support and facilitate a strong chemistry contribution to the 2022 International Year of Basic Sciences for Development, for which IUPAC is a supporting partner.

Goals for the project, aligned with these 3 strands are outlined below:
1. Sustainability: Using systems thinking (ST) approaches to integrate and strengthen contributions from education in the basic sciences toward meeting the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), the project task force will focus on the role for chemistry as a central science in contributing to solutions to Earth and societal system challenges. Systems thinking is designated as a key consideration in attaining UNESCO’s Learning Objectives for achieving the UNSDGs. UNESCO coordinates the Education for Sustainable Development Goals. The completed IUPAC Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education (STICE) project was informed by both successes and weaknesses in the application of ST to other STEM disciplines, and a review of ST in other STEM disciplines was carried out as part of that project. The STICE framework and approach that has emerged is well positioned to leverage that learning to strengthen connections among the basic sciences, with a substantial initial focus on supporting IUPAC’s contribution to the UNESCO (and hopefully UN) International Year of Basic Sciences for Development (IYBSD) 2022. Activities and approaches informed by systems thinking in science education to be disseminated during IYBSD will be proposed by a task force subgroup that will include consultation with IYBSD steering committee members, members of IUPAC’s Bureau, the International Science Council, UNESCO, and the three IUPAC standing committees involved in the project (CCE, COCI, and ICGCSD). Project efforts in this area will be guided by task group members with expertise in systems thinking, education for sustainable development, green and sustainable chemistry education, and membership in the Young Global Alliance, with the aim of reinforcing the contribution of basic sciences to sustainability in the 2030 Agenda and beyond.

2. Formal Chemistry Education: IUPAC sets standards for a common language for the global chemistry community. The area of systems thinking in chemistry education has emerged rapidly and would benefit from IUPAC’s continued role in guiding its further coherent development. This project proposes to coordinate, evaluate, and publicize steps to carefully articulate the essential characteristics of ST in chemistry education and to outline ways in which ST can synergistically support educators in using and assessing student outcomes from other pedagogical approaches such as context-based learning, problem-based learning, and critical thinking. A seminal starting point for this aspect of the project is offered by the work of task group members Orgill and York (see and future directions were laid out by task group members ( This subgroup will work with CCE to formulate a set of IUPAC recommendations to guide the use of STICE, including a mechanism to articulate learning outcomes for STICE to guide curriculum development, implementation, and assessment. In addition, to encourage and expand the uptake of STICE in chemistry at both secondary and tertiary education levels, the project will suggest ways to catalyze partnerships, in which not only educators take part, but also representatives of institutions responsible for chemical activities in society (industry, pharmacies, chemistry labs, OPCW, to name a few) to develop practical materials, examples and tools to support teaching, learning, curriculum development and assessment, with IUPAC CCE oversight of the project ensuring that diversity in international contexts is taken into account. A website to facilitate open access to and exchange of information, tools and education resources for STICE will be created and supported for a minimum of project duration, with efforts made to develop a sustainable mechanism to keep it up to date following the project ending. Project efforts in this area will be guided by a subgroup of the task force with expertise in systems thinking, chemistry education research, curriculum development and dissemination, assessment, web site development and deployment, and accreditation of chemistry programs. These activities will be carried out with the specific goal of strengthening the contributions of formal chemistry education to sustainability science and to meeting global sustainability goals such as the UNSDGs, thus supporting activities undertaken in Strand 1 (Sustainability).

3. Chemical Industry: Discussions will be initiated with COCI, to explore (a) how chemical industry may be able to contribute to outcomes of the IYBSD (Strand 1), emphasizing the central role of industry in the translation of basic sciences into sustainable products, processes and services; (b) how industrial perspectives can be linked to outcomes chemistry programs and courses, both at the secondary and tertiary level related to the incorporation of ST into formal chemistry education, so as to support the needs of industry and sustainability goals set out by industry (Strand 2); and c) the potential for mechanisms to increase the capacity of industry to incorporate ST in ways that embrace and extend principles of existing initiatives such as Responsible Care, Green and Sustainable Chemistry and the Circular Economy to reinforce the overall goal of sustainability. The work in this Strand will be led by COCI members and informed by task group participants with expertise in systems thinking, green and sustainable chemistry applications in industry, chemistry education and experience with facilitating interface and dialogue with industry.


Sep 2020 – Mode of project operation and management in a post-COVID world. Having been involved in the previous IUPAC STICE project, the Co-Chairs and some members of the new project Task Group have already established a highly effective and productive mode of working. Project management is undertaken through regular videoconferencing of the whole task group, with additional videoconferencing of smaller management and work groups running in parallel. Detailed literature reviewing, document work, drafting of case studies and tools development are undertaken by individuals or groups and shared via diverse digital modes. The project Task Group is therefore extremely well prepared to operate in the context of COVID-19, even in the current phase of isolation and lockdowns. Experience also showed the critical value of face-to-face meetings of the project Task Group and opportunities will be sought to do this once the post-pandemic situation permits – especially to exploit the opportunities provided by major events that many members of the task group would attend anyway. Such events also provide stimulus to meet deadlines that sustain the pace of work, as well as affording opportunities for results dissemination, peer feedback and the recruitment of additional collaborators as the project progresses.

Moreover, this productive mode of working also provides a model of how much more work will be undertaken internationally in the post- COVID-19 world. In supporting this project, which encompasses international and inter-divisional loci, academic and industry sectors, education, research and practice arenas and cross-disciplinary elements, IUPAC is demonstrating its strength and agility in adapting to the new global context. It is also showcasing the modus operandi for a lean, efficient, cost-effective and more sustainable future, in a coming period when the world’s resources will be exceptionally stretched in dealing with the pandemic’s aftermath.

Page last update 8 Sep 2020