Identifying chemistry students’ baseline systems thinking skills when constructing systems for a topic on climate change

06 October 2022, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Recently, increased attention towards systems thinking (ST) in chemistry education has aimed to bridge disciplines and equip citizens and scientists with skills needed to address global challenges such as sustainability and climate change. As a result, new resources have emerged for educators to implement systems thinking in chemistry education (STICE), including a proposed set of ST skills. While these efforts aim to make ST implementation easier, little is known about how to assess these skills in a chemistry context. Additionally, there are no studies that have investigated how chemistry students naturally engage with ST learning activities; such information would guide educators about where to place emphasis when teaching ST skills. In this study, we investigated ST skills employed by students who constructed visual representations (systems) of a topic related to climate change. Eighteen undergraduate chemistry students from first- to third-year participated in this study. We designed and implemented a ST intervention to capture how students engaged with three ST tasks, performed individually and collaboratively. In our analysis, we assessed eleven ST skills that aligned with the five characteristics of STICE proposed by York and Orgill. We found that most participants demonstrated these ST skills when assessing ST skills exactly as articulated in the literature. When further investigating the extent that participants demonstrated these skills, we identified aspects of these skills that participants did and did not demonstrate. We found that (1) participants’ systems lacked concepts and connections at the submicroscopic level, (2) participants’ systems included multiple types of connections in their systems but few circular loops and causal connections, (3) participants predicted how their systems changed over time but lacked multicomponent causal reasoning, and (4) participants’ systems demonstrated the breadth of connections but did not consider human connections to the underlying chemistry of climate change topics. These findings identify aspects of ST where chemistry educators need to place emphasis when teaching ST skills to chemistry students and when guiding learning activities and other assessments. Using our findings, we created a ST rubric for the chemistry community as a tool for assessing ST skills.


Chemistry Education Research
Systems Thinking
Qualitative analysis
First-Year Undergraduate
Second-Year Undergraduate
Upper-Division Undergraduate

Supplementary materials

Supporting information
Detailed codebook and description of minor findings


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