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Vol. 29 No. 4
July-August 2007

Sustainable Development and Education:
Where Does Chemistry Fit?

by Rietje van Dam-Mieras

As a chemistry student at Utrecht University I very much enjoyed student life and chemistry. Sharing the joy of student life with fellow students from a broad range of disciplines was easy, but sharing the beauty of chemistry as a subject was far more difficult. When I told them about chemistry the reaction often was “Oh, how interesting,” and then the discussion stopped. I almost envied students in medicine, law, or the social sciences because communication about their field of interest was much easier. The rather abstract and ratio-based approach to chemistry made sharing its beauty with others rather difficult. These experiences certainly influenced my decision to apply my chemical knowledge on sustainable development and education.

Knowledge and Education: Back to the Roots
From a modern European perspective, chemistry is part of the natural sciences and has its roots in classical Greek natural philosophy. Greek natural philosophers tried to understand their physical environment and the changes taking place in it by observation, the construction of mental models based on these observations, and by challenging these mental models during discussions with others.

A very important question for (natural) philosophers was “What is a good life (in a moral sense)?” In this context they determined substantial and instrumental rationality. Instrumental rationality involved the best ways to realize an objective; we presently would call this effectiveness and efficiency. Substantial rationality was about authentic principles to which a person freely commits oneself; we would presently call this norms and values.

For discussions about these subjects the philosophers relied on scolè (the origin of the word “school”), which is free space to think together about common authentic values and principles. In those days, education was in the hands of private teachers who gathered with their audiences in informal environments like sport schools (gymnasia). The “students” were free (male) citizens; slaves and women could not participate. Over time, the use of education to deliberately influence peoples’ behavior became increasingly important. Schools were no longer about creating free space to think together, but were about realizing predetermined learning objectives for specified target groups.

During the 17th century, the period known as the Enlightenment, great changes in the methodology for knowledge generation took place in Europe.1 The process of observing was supported by instrumentation and experimentation. Discussions not only were organized in academies of science, but also became more independent of time and place because of the development of scientific journals. Also, the standardization of scientific methodology, the system of control of scientific quality by peers, and the use of disciplines as an organizing principle in scientific work, date back to those days. We can also recognize these historical developments in the way the educational system is organized, especially in secondary, higher, and vocational education, where the disciplinary approach is an important organizing principle.

Within the disciplinary domain, scientists share their mental models and speak a common disciplinary language. The development of scientific disciplines paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, which started in Europe in the 18th century and resulted in drastic changes in technology, economy, and society, and created welfare, at least in industrialized societies. It also contributed to the development of nation states responsible for the public interest, for a proper functioning of economic markets, for safety, and for the development of social institutions that constitute a safety net for their citizens. Welfare in these nations was to some extent shared among citizens and resulted in increased possibilities for individual development. The Industrial Revolution certainly contributed to the development of welfare and the growth of the economy, very often with an emphasis on material welfare.2 However, it has become clear that the patterns of production and consumption that have their roots in this revolution are not sustainable.

The old economy was about dealing with scarcity. How scarce means are used is determined by social-economic and cultural conditions. In other words, economy is a normative science. Before the Enlightenment, economy was part of moral philosophy. Through the developments during the knowledge revolution of the 17th century, especially those in the field of mathematics and mathematically based ways of quantification, modelling and simulation, economy developed into an independent discipline.2 The quantification and modelling dimensions of the economic discipline made it an important instrument in the hand of political and business leaders who are always looking for images of the future that allow for policy development with a certain (perceived) degree of certainty. The balance between substantial and instrumental rationality has been shifted in the direction of the latter by these developments.

The disciplinary approach in scientific research certainly has been, and still is, of great value for fundamental research, but it is not the most optimal way to diagnose and remediate—or better prevent—societal problems. A disciplinary approach to societal problems implies that problems have to be formulated and solved within disciplinary domains by academics. This guarantees knowledge of good scientific quality, but, since societal complexity is lost by reducing a complex problem to a research question that fits within the disciplinary domain, the solutions provided may be rather removed from the reality of daily life. Knowledge to solve societal problems should not only be of good scientific quality, it should also be robust from a societal standpoint, a fact that requires multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches.* One could therefore conclude that after a few centuries of applying a reductionist approach in science—which is still very valuable within specific scientific domains—we must search for more integrated scientific approaches.

The historic developments described above are also reflected in the way chemistry is dealt with in education. Traditionally, the starting point for chemistry education tends to be rather abstract and ratio based—an approach that doesn’t appeal to all youngsters, many of whom place more importance on emotional and social fulfilment. Thus, we should question whether a chemistry curriculum that reflects, to a large extent, the historical development of the field is still optimal to educate the young people of today to become the world citizens of tomorrow.

One could state that there are two important objectives for education today:

  • helping students understand the physical and social environment and the changes taking place in those environments
  • creating free space to think together about common authentic values and principles

In order to realize these objectives, both natural and social sciences are needed in education. There will always be different accents in individual learning trajectories according to personal preferences and labor-market conditions, and yet aspects of globalization, cultural diversity, and sustainable development should be considered. Chemistry can help achieve both educational objectives given above, but this very often is difficult because of the way chemistry is dealt with in education.

. . . we should question whether a chemistry curriculum that reflects, to a large extent, the historical development of the field is still optimal . . .

In the Netherlands, the new chemistry curriculum for upper secondary education that is presently being developed is an encouraging step in the right direction.3 It follows a “concept-context” approach. A limited amount of chemical concepts are introduced, starting from a societal context, and are further developed by applying the concepts in other contexts. Thus, chemistry is presented as part of a much larger system. For biology and physics, comparable approaches have been developed, which makes the separation between the different natural sciences less sharp. This is an encouraging first step, but much remains to be done. How about the interaction between natural and social sciences? What is the place of natural sciences and technology in primary education? Does a more integrated approach to societal problems create consequences for university education? Of course, one must master a discipline before one is able to use multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, but education should also enable people to obtain the competencies to do so.

Sustainable Development:
A Challenge to World Citizens and an Inspiration for Chemistry

From a historical perspective, sustainable development could be described as a political compromise between the so-called developed world, concerned about the ecological consequences of its production and consumption, and the so-called developing world, concerned about economic development. The report Our Common Future of the World Committee on Environment and Development, chaired by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, was a result of this compromise.4 Sustainable development can also be described as a process of change during which societies and their citizens learn to deal with the tension between ecological sustainability and economic development while doing justice to interests at both the local and the global level.5

If we accept that our present society is a globalizing society, an important point to consider is that globalization exceeds the traditional frames of reference societies have. Every culture has its own specific world view, which is an important factor in its set of norms and values. Asking ethical questions such as “What is a good life in a moral sense?” in a global society, therefore, quickly results in “defending our values against theirs.”2

At the onset of the 21st century, many people realize that more integrated approaches to global and/or societal problems are needed. Ecological economics is concerned with extending and integrating the study of managing nature’s household (ecology) and humanities’ household (economy) <>. The Earth Charter <> wants to function as a broadly accepted frame of reference underlying development. Through this movement, companies are encouraged to work on Corporate Social Responsibility in order to balance people, profit, and planet.6 In addition, many United Nations projects encourage sustainable development. However, as media coverage demonstrates, this process of change can be quite difficult.

In everyday life, sustainable development means dealing with dilemmas in complex societal settings and making decisions under uncertainty. While the precautionary principle can be applied, dealing with uncertainty remains difficult. This is especially true in environments focused on providing certainty.

For these reasons, sustainable development should receive a prominent place in education at all levels. Koïchiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, formulates this concept as follows: “Education—in all its forms and all its levels—is not only an end in itself, but is also one of the most powerful instruments we have for bringing about the changes required to achieve sustainable development.”5

Education for sustainable development means empowering individuals to deal with dilemmas in complex societal settings. It also means taking into account the interaction between local (daily life) and global (economic, climate system, and world ecosystem) forces. Students must be taught how to use multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches and how to work together in teams with people from different disciplinary, social, and cultural backgrounds. Education for sustainable development should be focused on identifying competencies and developing appropriate learning environments and processes, rather than on defining the exact type of knowledge that learners should acquire. Needless to say that learning environments in traditional—disciplinary oriented—curricula have severe shortcomings in this respect. Sustainable development education aimed at individuals and organizations requires innovative learning environments and approaches. It should be seen as a life-long process that takes place in formal (the education system), non-formal (training on the job), and informal (museums, zoos, vacations) learning environments.

A relevant project is the Regional Centres of Expertise (RCEs) initiative of the United Nations University (UNU), part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. UNU created a network of RCEs on Education for Sustainable Development.7 The goal of these regional centers is to organize activities locally that (a) enhance collaboration among different levels of education (i.e., primary, secondary, and higher education) and (b) facilitate relations between schools and research centers, local businesses, museums, and local governments. Hopefully, this network will develop into a global learning space for sustainable development.

Chemistry: A Science for Change
The potential of chemistry for sustainable development is high. In recent decades chemistry has begun to change from a science focused on structure and reactivity of individual molecules to a science concerned with complete molecular systems. It is part of the core of life sciences, nanotechnology, macromolecular chemistry, and new materials. Chemistry can contribute to solving challenges in many fields, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, water use and sanitation, renewable resources, healthcare, nutrition, quality control of production chains, process (re)design, and catalysis. But meeting societal challenges means dealing with complex problems and uncertainty. Chemists can not do the job alone, they will have to work with people from a wide range of disciplines, experts, and stakeholders.

Research studies have shown that technology and society develop in a process of co-evolution: New ideas are tried out in society and in this way society directs technological development. On the other hand, with time, new technologies like ICT and those based on molecular sciences (biotechnology, nanotechnology, genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, nutrigenomics, pharmacogenomics) will influence society and societal norms and values. The societal influence on technologies involving molecular sciences will be more direct than on fundamental molecular sciences of course. The market will encourage incremental innovation and optimization of existing technologies, but the fundamental sciences are necessary for more radical changes and innovations.

Employing chemistry for sustainable development raises some interesting questions:

  • Can a strategy for chemistry for sustainable development be determined at a national level?
  • If chemistry is seen as a source of inspiration for innovations for sustainable development, what are the consequences of chemistry education?
  • How could a dialogue between the international community of chemistry professionals and the global community be effective and productive?
  • What role could an international organization, such as IUPAC, play?

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch because there are inspiring examples. For instance, the recently published report Chemically Related Organizations and Developing Countries8 and the Conference Report of the 2nd ICSU Regional Consultative Forum for Africa.9 The former reports the results of a consultation by the American Chemical Society’s Committee on International Activities with a number of government organizations active in furthering science, technology, and innovation in developing countries. The latter reports the results from an ICSU forum held in Boksburg, South Africa, from 25–27 September 2006.

It seems clear that efforts to create more sustainable development present an opportunity to unveil the too often hidden potential and beauty of chemistry to a larger public. Could this opportunity also inspire innovations in chemistry education?

*Multidisciplinarity means approaching a problem from different scientific perspectives. Interdisciplinarity means the cooperation of different scientific disciplines and the integration of different disciplinary perspectives, theories, and methods. Transdisciplinarity refers to cooperation among experts in possession of practical experience from outside the academic world.

1. Daston, L. (2005), The History of Science as a European Self-Portraiture, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.
2. Van der Wal, G.A. (2003), Globalisierung, Nachhaltigkeit und Ethik, Natur und Kultur. Transsisziplinäre Zeitschrift für ökologische Nachhaltigkeit 4/1, 100-119.
3. SLO (2005), Jaarverslag 2004 Nieuwe Scheikunde, Stichting Leerplanontwikkeling, Enschede.
4. World Commissions on Environment and Development (1987): Our Common Future, Oxford University Press.
5. UNESCO (2004), United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005–2014. Draft International Implementation Scheme, UNESCO Paris.
6. OECD (2000), The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Paris,
7. Fadeeva, Z., Ginkel, H. van, and Suzuki, K. (2005b), “Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development: Concepts and Issues,” Mobilising for Education for Sustainable Development: Towards a Global Learning Space based on Regional Centres of Expertise, UNU-IAS, pp. 22–28.
8. Nameroff, T., and Miller, B. (2007), Chemically Related Organizations and Developing Countries, ACS Office of International Activities, Washington, D.C.
9. ICSU Regional Office for Africa (2006), Conference Report of the 2nd ICSU Regional Consultative Forum for Africa, Boksburg South Africa, 25–27 September 2006.

Rietje van Dam-Mieras <[email protected]> is from the Open Universiteit Nederland (OUNL) and RCE Rhine-Meuse, Heerlen, in The Netherlands, and also the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Yokohama, Japan. Since 2006, she has been a member of the IUPAC Bureau.

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