Applications of Systems Thinking in STEM Education

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Journal of Chemical Education





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Systems thinking is a holistic approach for examining complex problems and systems that focuses on the interactions among system components and the patterns that emerge from those interactions. Systems thinking can help students develop higher-order thinking skills in order to understand and address complex, interdisciplinary, real-world problems. Because of these potential benefits, there have been recent efforts to support the implementation of systems thinking approaches in chemistry education, including the development of the IUPAC Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education (STICE) Project and this Special Issue of the Journal of Chemical Education: “Reimagining Chemistry Education: Systems Thinking, and Green and Sustainable Chemistry”. As part of these efforts, our purposes in this paper are to describe some of the potential benefits associated with systems thinking approaches, to identify the STEM education fields that have employed systems thinking approaches, to summarize some of the major findings about the applications of systems thinking in STEM education, and to present methods that have been used to assess systems thinking skills in STEM education. We found that, in general, systems thinking approaches have been applied in life sciences, earth sciences, and engineering but not in the physical or mathematical sciences. We also found that the primary emphasis of peer-reviewed publications was on the development of students’, rather than teachers’, systems thinking abilities. Existing tools for the assessment of systems thinking in STEM education can be divided into (a) assessment rubrics, (b) closed-ended tools, and (c) coding schemes, with each type of assessment tool having its own unique advantages and disadvantages. We highlight one particular case in which researchers applied an interdisciplinary framework for comprehensive assessment of systems thinking. Although systems thinking has not been widely researched or applied in chemistry education, many of the conceptual frameworks applied to systems thinking in other STEM education disciplines could potentially be applied in chemistry education. We argue that the benefits observed when applying systems thinking approaches in other STEM education disciplines could facilitate similar results for chemistry education. Finally, we provide considerations for future research and applications of systems thinking in chemistry education.


General public; Problem solving/decision making; Learning theories; Systems thinking


Educational Methods | Science and Mathematics Education




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