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September 2019 | Nuts & Bolts
Systems-Thinking in the Chemistry Classroom
By Thomas Fox
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Since its origins in the 18th century, chemistry has made numerous contributions to society. Progress in medicine, biotechnology, genetics, and energy can be largely attributed to discovery and development in the field of chemistry. These developments are undoubtedly a result of the increasing number of students exposed to the discipline since its beginnings.1 However, chemistry education, especially at the secondary and post-secondary level, may be facing an “existential crisis of sorts.”2
A recurring critique of chemical education, and of science education in general, is that curriculum writers frequently take an approach that lacks a holistic perspective and relies instead on reductionism and isolation of quantitative concepts.3
For instance, units on chemical reactions often emphasize the mathematical relationship between products and reactants, but neglect to contextualize these reactions. Curriculum writers may overlook the impacts of extracting the reactants needed to harvest energy from carbon containing compounds, or the results of the products of these reactions on the environment. While there have been notable attempts by advocates of chemical education to consider a more global approach to curriculum (e.g. Chemistry in the Community,4 Green Chemistry,5 Active Chemistry6), more can be done by educators, teacher-leaders, and science teacher education programs to widen both teachers’ and students’ understanding of the chemical sciences. A systems-approach to curriculum development, grounded in General Systems Theory, as well as pragmatic tools to integrate this theory into curriculum documents, may help chemistry education through its current predicament.
A systems approach to chemistry curriculum development
|N2 (g) + 3H2 (g) → 2NH3 (g)|
|Figure 1. The synthesis of ammonia using hydrogen and nitrogen gas.|
General Systems Theory (GST) attempts to acknowledge the individual parts of a system while simultaneously emphasizing that each of the parts interact, “both with and within a complex of lower level, higher level, and same-level systems or subsystems.”7 Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, who is often credited as being the father of GST, explained that, “in one way or another we are forced to deal with complexities, with the ‘wholes,’ or systems in all forms of knowledge.”8
By incorporating a systems-thinking approach to curriculum writing, teachers may help students develop a deeper appreciation for chemistry.9 For instance, the synthesis of ammonia via nitrogen and hydrogen gas is often used as an example when students are first taught to balance chemical reactions. This seemingly simple reaction can be modeled for students, and then teachers may focus on more complicated reactions (see Figure 1). However, through the lens of systems-thinking curriculum development, ammonia synthesis becomes much more fascinating and culturally relevant. Its importance in fertilizer production, or the way in which a plant can “fix” nitrogen and produce its own ammonia as a result of a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms — due to an evolutionary alliance that has developed over millions of years — may help contextualize and connect a seemingly simple chemical reaction with much larger systems.
With curriculum ideology shifts already in place that emphasize a deeper level of conceptual understanding over rote learning,10 now is the time to adopt a systems-thinking approach to chemistry curriculum development. To accomplish systems-thinking within curriculum, teachers, teacher-leaders, and department chairs may work together to plan units and curriculum with a deliberate focus on interconnected systems, both within the sciences and across disciplines.
Tools to help teachers integrate a systems-approach to curriculum
Two tools that may help chemistry curriculum writers integrate a systems-approach during curriculum development are described below.
Science Literacy Maps
Science Literacy Maps (SLMs) are free “interactive tool[s] for teachers and learners to explore science and math concepts. The map[s] illustrate connections between concepts as well as how concepts build on one another across the grade levels.”11 SLMs “consist of central ideas that are further delineated into smaller, discrete ideas displayed as a branched tree of nodal associations and relationships of ideas.”12
A number of SLMs have already been created through collaborative efforts by the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Digital Learning Sciences, and the University of Colorado. These maps (which can be accessed free online) were produced and designed to help science teachers navigate national standards, to make connections between the standards, to identify learning outcomes by grade level, and to locate material to help teach the standards. For example, teachers can find a SLM pertaining to a unit on chemical reactions as well as a map outlining a unit on energy transformations. The use of these maps, as both resources and models for curriculum development, may help chemistry curriculum writers move toward a more holistic approach to curriculum writing.
Using SLMs as a model, chemistry teachers may also consider constructing concept maps for teaching a specific topic or for addressing a certain standard. Concept maps are “two-dimensional representations of cognitive structures, showing the hierarchies and the interconnectedness of concepts involved in a discipline or a subject.”13 By integrating concept map synthesis into curriculum development, science departments and professional learning communities would have a chance to engage in a critical dialogue about the interconnectedness of learning outcomes within units, between units, and across disciplines and grade levels.
After the completion of a concept map, teachers could pursue connections they would like to make based on student interest, available resources, or current events in their local community related to chemistry topics. For example, teachers constructing a concept map who also live in a coastal region may consider connecting ocean acidification to a unit on chemical reactions, conservation of matter, and acid-base chemistry (see Figure 2). Students could be invited to visit beaches, explore the impacts of ocean acidification, both environmentally and economically, and offer solutions to this problem. All the while, students could make connections between content standards and their local communities.
|Figure 2. An excerpt from a chemistry concept map used to aid in the design of a unit on chemical equations (graphic created by the author).|
SLMs and concept maps are practical tools that may help science curriculum writers simultaneously isolate and connect major concepts and themes within, and between, units of study. Science teachers may consider creating their own concept maps with their local community in mind. By using either or both of these tools, chemistry educators and their students may step away from fragmentalism and towards a deeper, more connected understanding of “The Central Science.”
- Matlin, S. A.; Abegaz, B. M. Chemistry for Development. In The Chemical Element: Chemistry’s Contribution to Our Global Future. First Edition [Online]; Garcia-Martinez, J., Serrano-Torregrosa, E., Eds.; Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, 2011, pp 1–70. https://application.wiley-vch.de/books/sample/3527328807_c01.pdf (accessed March 24, 2019).
- Matlin, S. A.; Mehta, G.; Hopf, H.; Krief, A. One-World Chemistry and Systems Thinking. Nature Chemistry [Online] 2016,8(5), 393–398. http://uvsalud.univalle.edu.co/pdf/politica_formativa/documentos_de_estudio_referencia/2016_matlin_systems_thinking_chemistry_(2).pdf (accessed March 24, 2019).
- Orion, N. A. Holistic Approach for Science Education for All. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education [Online] 2007, 3(2), 111–118. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26462385_A_Holistic_Approach_for_Science_Education_For_All (accessed March 24, 2019).
- American Chemical Society. Chemistry in the Community, 6th Edition; W. H. Freeman/BFW, 2012. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemcom.html (accessed June 18, 2019).
- Royal Society of Chemistry. Green Chemistry. https://www.rsc.org/journals-books-databases/about-journals/green-chemistry/ (accessed June 18, 2019).
- Activate Learning Landing Page. “Active Chemistry.” http://activatelearning.com/active-chemistry/ (accessed June 18, 2019).
- Yurtseven, M. K.; Buchanan, W. W. Complexity Decision Making and General Systems Theory: An Educational Perspective. Sociology Study [Online] 2016, 6(2). 77-95. http://www.davidpublisher.com/Public/uploads/Contribute/577df1007eb21.pdf (accessed July 31, 2019).
- Bertalanffy, L. von. General system theory: foundations, development, applications, 18th Edition. George Braziller, Inc.: New York, 1968.
- Holme, T. Incorporating Elements of Green and Sustainable Chemistry in General Chemistry via Systems Thinking. Published Online: Feb 2, 2019. https://chemrxiv.org/articles/Incorporating_Elements_of_Green_and_Sustainable_Chemistry_in_General_Chemistry_via_Systems_Thinking/7722389.
- Next Generation Science Standards Web Page on Stoichiometry. https://www.nextgenscience.org/commonly-searched-terms/stoichiometry-0 (accessed Mar 27, 2019).
- UCAR Community Programs web page on Science Literacy Maps. http://strandmaps.dls.ucar.edu/ (accessed March 24, 2019).
- Payo, R. NSDL K-12 Science Literacy Maps. Knowledge Quest [Online] 2008, 36(4), 50-52. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/106256/ (accessed March 24, 2019).
- Martin, D. J. Concept Mapping as an Aid to Lesson Planning: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Elementary Science Education [Online] 1994, 6(2), 11–30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43156134.pdf (accessed March 24, 2019).
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