New research highlights PME’s holistic approach to STEM education

A paper recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education features research on the educational strategy and coursework offered by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago.

The article, titled “Integrating Systems Thinking into Teaching Emerging Technologies,” is a study of how chemistry education can be transformed to better address global problems—and how a course taught at Pritzker Molecular Engineering can help pave the way forward.

Systems thinking in science education

In response to a call for papers on reimagining chemistry education using systems thinking, researchers at PME conducted a study of PME’s “Introduction to Emerging Technologies” course. The paper, currently published online, will also be featured in a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education titled “Reimagining Chemistry Education: Systems Thinking, and Green and Sustainable Chemistry.” The special issue will be published online on December 10.

Systems thinking, which focuses on how components of dynamic systems depend on each other, moves beyond traditional science and engineering disciplines to look at technological challenges more holistically. And while the concept of systems thinking is not new, actively applying it to STEM education represents a novel shift.

“Using a systems-thinking approach to learning new knowledge allows students to more readily connect the scientific concepts presented in the classroom to their everyday realities. It can equip them to think about the world more holistically,” said Whitney Fowler, a graduate student at PME and lead author on the paper.

In their research, the PME team looked at the course topics of batteries, quantum information technology, and meat alternatives. They found that, with these subject areas, the course effectively illustrated the connections between science/engineering principles and business/socioeconomic factors—the connections students must make in order for new technologies to succeed.

"For each technology, we look at the fundamental science, technological basis, and the societal, political, economic, and psychological components that underpin the life of a new technological idea and consider how they interact with each other to influence its success or failure," said Fowler. "Ultimately, we hope to empower students to translate that holistic evaluation skill set to other societal problems facing the world."

A course with an interdisciplinary approach

“Introduction to Emerging Technologies” examines developing technologies particularly in the areas of biomedicine and biotechnology, covering the basic science as well as the challenges of bringing new technologies to market.

Taught by the dean of PME, Matthew Tirrell, the course can include subjects like stem cells in regenerative medicine, quantum computing, water purification, and new batteries. While it began as an undergraduate course, it is now offered to both undergraduate and graduate students.

The research team studied the course taught during the Autumn Quarter of 2018, when it was made up of 43 students from 13 different majors. Most students came from the fields of economics, molecular engineering, biological sciences, computer science, and chemistry. The student feedback gathered in the study suggests the students were highly motivated by the subject matter and encouraged to think about STEM outside the classroom.

"The course is an interesting blend of information about a wide variety of cutting-edge technologies," said Nicholas Macke, a student who took the course during the study. "I think the goal is just to broaden our horizons. We often get buried in our own work and don't have opportunities to do deep dives into these topics we hear about in the news, but in this class, that's the whole point."

Vepa Rozyyev, who also took the course last fall, said, “The emerging technologies course is different than any course I have taken. The course involves both scientific and business perspectives of new innovations." Rozyyey added, “It made me clearly understand why some tech companies failed regardless of their high promise of success."

Designing the future of STEM education

Bringing systems thinking into STEM education has its challenges, Fowler acknowledged.

“The currently available textbooks and materials use a traditional, reductionistic approach to teaching present topics as discrete, often unrelated ideas and equations," she explained. “Redesigning a course to use systems thinking would require a significant overhaul of the current approach.”

Investing in a more holistic approach, however, could potentially help students solve our biggest societal challenges. For the research team, the hope is that the emerging technology course at PME can serve as a model for introducing key aspects of systems thinking into science and engineering education.

"We hope that this publication both brings awareness of this emerging pedagogical strategy and also offers practical steps for instructors on how they could transition their classrooms to incorporate systems thinking strategies," said Fowler.

Other authors of the paper include Tirrell, PME postdoctoral fellow Jeffrey Ting, PME graduate student Siqi Meng, and PME alumnus Lu Li.

Citation: “Integrating Systems Thinking into Teaching Emerging Technologies.” Whitney C. Fowler et al. Journal of Chemical Education, doi: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00280

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