Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and chemistry education

Mareike Burmeister a, Franz Rauch b and Ingo Eilks a
aUniversity of Bremen, Germany. E-mail:
bAlpe-Adria-University, Klagenfurt, Austria. E-mail:;

Received 15th September 2011 , Accepted 11th December 2011

First published on 31st January 2012

The years between 2005 and 2014 have been declared as a worldwide Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) by the United Nations. DESD's intended purpose is to promote and more thoroughly focus education as a crucial tool preparing young people to be responsible future citizens, so that our future generations can shape society in a sustainable manner. All educational levels and domains are to be involved in contributing to ESD, including chemistry. This paper reflects upon the meaning of the UN's challenge and on what ESD pedagogy will mean for chemistry education. Additionally, it provides an overview of different models suggesting how such integration of sustainability issues can be compatible with chemistry education. Various consequences and implications arising from this approach will also be discussed.

A pedagogical justification for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is part of Agenda 21, which was established by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 describes a basis of action for ESD: “Education, including formal education, public awareness and training should be recognized as a process by which human beings and societies can reach their fullest potential. Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues. While basic education provides the underpinning for any environmental and developmental education, the latter needs to be incorporated as an essential part of learning. Both formal and non-formal education is indispensable to changing people's attitudes so that they have the capacity to assess and address their sustainable development concerns. It is also critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behavior consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making. To be effective, environment and development education should deal with the dynamics of both the physical/biological and socio-economic environment, and human (which may include spiritual) development should be integrated in all disciplines and should employ formal and non-formal methods and effective means of communication.” (UNCED, 1992)

The central focus of ESD is to prepare the younger generation to become responsible citizens in the future. Students should be able to participate in a democratic society and to help in shaping future society in a sustainable fashion. They should learn to take responsibility for both themselves and future generations, based on the concept of sustainable development (de Haan, 2006). Learners should also achieve “Action Competence” for their lives and for their existence in society (Mogensen and Schnack 2010). This focus of ESD is similar to the German philosophy of Allgemeinbildung (“general education”) which represents a 200-year-old tradition stemming from continental Europe. Allgemeinbildung defines the central objective of any educational efforts and describes the overriding goals of any formal educational efforts as helping students to 1) develop abilities for recognizing and expressing their own interests among society-at-large and 2) participate within a democratic society as responsible citizens, both today and in the future (e.g., Elmose and Roth, 2005; Fensham, 2004; Hofstein et al., 2011; Westbury et al., 2000). Klafki (2000) described these abilities using three dimensions, defined as developing a capacity for self-determination, participation, and expressing solidarity with others within society. Therefore, any topic or issue believed relevant enough to be taught in compulsory formal education should possess relevance or personal meaning for the learner in both present and future and should evidence potential for raising a student's capacity for self-determination, participation in society, and solidarity (Fensham, 2004). The idea of Allgemeinbildung also challenges science education in contributing to students' ability to live responsibly in a world which is becoming increasingly complex and more highly influenced by both scientific developments (including the field of chemistry) and technology (Elmose and Roth, 2005; Hofstein et al., 2011; Roth and Lee, 2004). However, Allgemeinbildung doesn't just ask for a shift in the content of science education. Holbrook and Rannikmäe (2007) with reference to the concept of Activity Theory (van Aalsvoort, 2004) pointed out that such a focus on education will correspondingly lead to a shift in the paradigm of formal science education. The educational shift would move learning away from an orientation of learning science “facts” and knowledge towards the goal of achieving both general educational objectives and the promotion of general scientific skills. Within this shift, ESD can be interpreted as a specific form of Allgemeinbildung-driven education which follows Holbrook's distinction between traditional ‘science through education’ approaches and ‘education through science’ in order to achieve multidimensional scientific and technological literacy for all students (Holbrook, 2005; Holbrook and Rannikmäe, 2007): “Science education should be regarded as education through science', rather thanscience through education.’ [] This encompasses an understanding of the nature of science [education], with links to achievement of goals in the personal domain, stressing intellectual and communication skill development, as well as the promotion of character and positive attitudes, plus achievement of goals in the social education domain, stressing cooperative learning and socio-scientific decision-making. [] the over-riding target for science teaching in school, as an aspect of relevant education, is seen in responsible citizenry, based on enhancing scientific and technological literacy.”

Yet, much science education seems to be quite different in practice, in compulsory formal education as well as in optional higher education. In a recent review of secondary school science education practices in Israel, Germany and the US, Hofstein et al. (2011) took up the discussion and reflected on common science education practices in the three above-mentioned countries. An overall lack of orientation on general educational objectives preparing students for active participation in society was described, as compared to a science education framework based on Allgemeinbildung, Activity Theory and ‘education through science’. This justified various efforts based on a much more thorough orientation of science education towards societal issues, which have been seen in different curricular approaches presented in the last 30 years. Examples of these include Science-Technology-Society (STS) (Solomon and Aikenhead, 1994), Science And Technology In Society (SATIS) (Holman, 1986), ChemCom - Chemistry in the Community (Schwartz, 2006), Scientific and Technological Literacy for All (STL) (Holbrook, 1998), 21 Century Science (Millar, 2006), different approaches of societal-oriented or socio-scientific issue-based teaching (Sadler and Zeidler, 2009; Ware, 2001), and the socio-critical, problem-oriented approach to chemistry teaching formulated by Marks and Eilks (2009). But even though these models are readily available (independent of the fact that each society-oriented approach varies in its objectives and coverage of societal issues and general educational objectives) all the approaches seem to have one thing in common: application of them appears to be a rare occurrence in many countries (Pederson and Totten, 2001; Hofstein et al., 2011).

We therefore need to ask ourselves the following questions: What is new in ESD-type science education in the sense of Agenda 21? What is the connection or difference between Agenda 21 and the above-mentioned curricula? ESD demands a more thorough approach. It does not only mean using new questions of sustainability or the networking of science and society as the content of and/or context for science teaching. ESD requires a comprehensive approach in taking up socially relevant issues and dealing with them in a multi-dimensional fashion. This multi-dimensionality should include understanding the background of a given issue, which can also stem from chemistry, and such a point of view should also start already in compulsory school science education. Chemistry education based on ESD principles on all levels must also deal with impacts on ecology, economy, and society as a whole. It should focus on real changes within society on local, regional and global levels (De Haan, 2006; Wheeler, 2000). In its thoroughness, ESD requires a qualitative change in science education, despite the fact that the entire process is driven by both environmentally and socially relevant issues (Hart, 2007).

The policy behind sustainability issues in science and science education

The idea of acting sustainably was created by the discipline of forestry centuries ago. From the 18th century, the forest industry became expanded greatly. Sustainable use of available forest resources came to be defined as not cutting any more trees in a forest than you could replace with younger trees maturing in the same amount of time. From the beginning, this concept was viewed as an avenue for providing both ecological and economic stability.

With skyrocketing industrial development during the 19th and 20th centuries, Western societies began a necessary discussion about the limits of growth in general (Meadows et al., 1972). The process was accompanied by a growing awareness of mankind's responsibility to allow future generations to live in an intact environment, thus providing them with chances for prosperity and growth in future. Inspired by the work of the Club of Rome, our contemporary understanding of sustainable development began to develop (Meadows et al., 1972). The discussion finally led to the work of the Brundtland Commission, which also devised a definition of sustainable development which is still in use today: Sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987).

After the Brundtland Report was released, the concept of sustainable development became increasingly refined. One important idea for understanding the dynamics of sustainable development is the concept of regulatory ideas (Kant, 1787). Such ideas do not indicate how an object is actually made up, but rather serve as a heuristic structure for reflection. They give direction to the research and learning processes. In terms of sustainability, this implies that the contradictions, dilemmas and conflicting targets inherent in this vision must be constantly renegotiated in a process of discourse between the participants found in each concrete situation (Rauch 2004, 2010).

Contributions focusing on sustainable development came from all academic domains. Today, the most common model of sustainable development consists of three domains. It attempts to ensure developmental sustainability in the areas of ecology, economics and society (UN, 2005). Other competitive models have also been suggested, e.g. models including additional dimensions (Hawkes, 2001). A good example of enhancing the focus of sustainability models is the ongoing debate of the role of culture as a dimension. The destruction of rain forests illustrates this point. Cutting forests to create land for growing agricultural goods or for the production of bio-fuels necessarily touches upon several important questions. These include the loss of potentially unique eco-systems, an endangerment of biodiversity, difficulties in calculating real economic benefits, and a serious reflection upon the working conditions experienced by the farm workers. Despite these important considerations, another baseline problem with rain forest destruction remains: indigenous peoples might lose livelihood and, thus, their culture and language might get lost, too. Be this as it may, the most common model of sustainable development today remains the three-domain model described above: ecology, economy and society (Fig. 1).

The three pillars model of sustainability.
Fig. 1 The three pillars model of sustainability.

But the three pillars model has also been questioned, whether or not it also represents a sufficient basis for dealing with educational issues concerning sustainability. Wheeler (2000) outlined several criticisms, stressing that being forced to simultaneously think in three interactive, yet quite independent domains makes learning the proper way to act even more difficult. Instead, Wheeler suggested five interacting perspectives of sustainable development for which ESD should be held accountable:

• Thinking about and affecting the future

• Designing sustainable communities

• Proper stewardship of natural resources

• Using sustainable economics

• Globalization

Because there are different models of sustainable development, we are also faced by different models of ESD. Nevertheless, most of these models contain some essentials in common. For example, the essential elements of most ESD models with respect to Paden (2000), McKeown (2002, 2006), UNESCO (2005b), or De Haan (2006) can be identified as:

• Learning about natural and man-made environments using an integrated view of their social, political, ecological and economical (and possibly cultural) dimensions, including involvement at the local and global levels;

• Focusing on participatory learning while aiming to promote citizenship skills through an ethics- and values-driven approach;

• Orienting learning on system-based thinking, including the use of interdisciplinary, learner-centered, experiential, and inquiry-based methods; and

• Focusing on life-long learning as a perspective which integrates formal and informal education.

All ESD models suggest a thorough orientation on societal issues, an interdisciplinary approach and a change in pedagogy far outstripping simple re-arranging or altering curricula. Interdisciplinary here is meant as bringing together the different perspectives towards a societal relevant question, incorporating chemistry with biology and physics, but also combining them with the perspectives from economy, social sciences and the humanities (i.e. ethics). ESD approaches also demand implementing a skills-oriented teaching paradigm in the above-mentioned sense of an education for sustainable development which goes beyond education about sustainable development (McKeown, 2006). In his conclusion, Wheeler (2000) expressed hope that students will develop skills and personally act on both the individual and community level. This includes developing:

• “A deep understanding of complex environmental, economic, and social systems;

Recognition of the importance of interconnectedness between these systems in a sustainable world; and

Respect for the diversity of ‘points-of-view’ and interpretations of complex issues stemming from cultural, racial, religious, ethnic, regional, and intergenerational perspectives” (p. 5).

In order to thoroughly implement ESD into formal education, the UN announced the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) for the years 2005–2014 (UNESCO, 2005a). DESD was inspired by the UN World Summits, which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002. Both summits concluded that education should be considered to be one of the keys for achieving sustainable development. The proper education will make future generations better able to understand the integrated nature of the economic, ecological and societal changes involved and teach them how to actively participate in sustainably shaping society (UNESCO, 2005a; McKeown, 2006; De Haan et al., 2010). Acknowledging the importance of education for sustainable development, the UN General Assembly enacted guidelines for implementing DESD (UNESCO, 2006). Strategic fields of action were defined which encompass equality between men and women, health promotion, environmental protection, rural development, peace and human security, sustainable consumption, cultural diversity, and sustainable urban development. In the foreground, education should not just deal with these topics in education. It should also be justifiable with respect to the following standards (Heinrich et al., 2007):

• Contending with societally relevant topics in ESD demands collective thinking about their economic, ecological, social and political dimensions.

• Any discussions and decision-making processes must be democratic in the sense that they inherently contain participatory elements.

• The final positions taken must be in accord with human rights protections, while not forgetting the background of global development.

• Dealing with specific situations and the final decisions made must leave open the possibility of questioning any particular point-of-view from multiple perspectives.

• Any final results must offer ideas for how they themselves contribute to higher levels of quality with respect to the ability to act in the sense of the first four items listed here.

ESD provides direction for educational research, teaching and changes in teacher education (UNESCO, 2005b, 2005c) with respect to education in general and chemistry education in particular. Using sustainable development as a regulatory idea, ESD implies inherent contradictions, dilemma and conflicting goals. This represents a great challenge, but also shows considerable potential for enhancing innovative developments in education. With reference to UNESCO (2006), ESD for chemistry education should therefore:

• Be interdisciplinary and holistic: ESD should be embedded in the entire chemistry curriculum and not merely be presented as a separate topic.

• Become value-driven: The ethical values and principles underpinning sustainable development should be accepted as the guiding principle of chemistry education, too.

• Promote critical thinking and problem solving: Addressing and understanding the dilemmas and challenges of sustainable development requires skills in critical thinking and problem solving.

• Be based on multi-dimensional methods: Word, art, drama, debate, experience, etc. should be used to construct a multi-faceted pedagogy which can cope with the multi-dimensional character of ESD.

• Involve participatory decision-making: Learners should be given the chance to participate in decisions and learn how they are to be drawn.

• Focus on applicability: Learning should be integrated in day-to-day personal and professional life contexts.

• Achieve local relevance: Teaching should address global as well as local issues, including use of the language(s) which the learners most commonly use.

To sum up, the vision of ESD should be a community of learners (teachers, pupils, students, researchers) who identify both topic interrelatedness and various options for action and intervention. Simultaneously, each individual in such communities should reflect upon his/her personal actions before coming to a decision in a joint forum (Rauch, 2004).

The role of chemistry for education on sustainability issues

There is no doubt that the field of chemistry and the industries related to it are in the economic heart of every highly-developed industrial society (Bradley, 2005; Ware, 2001). Industry provides the basic materials necessary for every other type of business. It also defines the basis of energy supply, modern agriculture, and innovative technologies. Unfortunately, many chemical industries around the world have not always been very careful in the past. Quite often, they neither concerned themselves with the preservation of natural resources, nor did they give much thought to protecting the environment. Accidents both large and small have significantly contributed to the negative public image of industrial undertakings and chemistry as a science (Hartings and Fahy, 2011). Our still available joint awareness of incidents such as the chemical spill in Bhopal (India) in 1984 or the use of chemical weapons in World War I clearly reflects this. Industrial disasters and misuses of chemistry are still largely influential on public opinion concerning chemistry and industry (Lazlo, 2006). Quite often, negative news reporting about industrial accidents and disasters shapes public consciousness about chemistry to the extent that the flip side of the coin is totally ignored. In the constant barrage of dramatic, emotionally-charged news blurbs, the overall predominance of beneficial, yet largely invisible effects derived directly from both chemistry and related industries is quietly swept under the rug. Several quite obvious examples of industry's positive influence on Western society and its standard of living are the benefits found in modern medicine, communication, transportation and nutrition. Yet the positive side of chemistry in our everyday lives is repressed in favor of poorly-informed, often biased mass media coverage. Balanced and evidence based communication is underdeveloped (Hartings and Fahy, 2011).

However, a change in attitude has slowly taken place—at least in Western societies (ECCC, 1993). This change goes hand-in-hand with a growing public awareness of both the finite nature of natural resources and the existence of limits which regulate and determine feasible rates of growth (Meadows et al., 1972). Both being careful with our resources and avoiding damage to our ecology and health has aided in promoting a better image of chemistry in the past decades. Ever since the 1990s, sustainability and sustainable development have emerged as the core issues of today's chemical industry, its actions and its public image. The report by the European Communities Chemistry Council entitled “Chemistry for a clean world” set the stage in 1993 (ECCC, 1993). In the USA, the works of Anastas and Warner (1998) presenting their concept of green chemistry began to expand and gain recognition in the mid-1990s. In the early years, a struggle to find a proper name for the concept occurred (Hutzinger, 1999). Whereas in the US the notion green chemistry quickly was accepted, much of Europe was put off by the use of the word “green”. For European chemists, this term deemed to be too highly associative to the policies of various “green” political parties emerging in the 1980s. By that time the green parties were much aligned with the political left wing and their policies were initially very much distanced from anything which had to do with industrial chemistry. Therefore, continental Europe selected the notion of sustainable chemistry for the political level in order to avoid any misinterpretations of the philosophy behind the decision. In any case, today both terms realistically mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably (Centi and Perathoner, 2009).

Both the American and European concepts in operation today refer back to the ideas of Anastas and Warner (1998) as published in the book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. This text provided an initial—and still current—definition of what we understand as the concept of green or sustainable chemistry. In Anastas and Warner (1998), the idea of a more environmentally friendly and resource-preserving synthesis in chemistry was expanded to include twelve concrete principles (Fig. 2). These principles became the generally accepted guidelines for the contemporary understanding of green, sustainable chemistry, which has been implemented by both research and industry worldwide. Limited resources and a constantly growing consciousness of the value of environmental protection were both among the driving forces of this movement. But, increasingly stringent legal restrictions for the handling of chemicals and the search for a better self-image for industrial chemistry in Western society also contributed to this development. Today, worldwide initiatives are focusing on a more environmentally responsible form of chemistry. Examples of this include the ACS Green Chemistry Institute (ACS-GCI) and the European technology platform for Sustainable Chemistry (SUSCHEM).

Twelve principles of green chemistry (Anastas and Warner, 1998).
Fig. 2 Twelve principles of green chemistry (Anastas and Warner, 1998).

The core role of chemistry and chemical industry for sustainable development in modern societies suggests a central role for chemistry education in ESD (Bradley, 2005). However, the necessary understanding of the chemistry and technology behind chemical and industrial developments is not enough to justify the role of chemistry education within ESD. When we take modern educational concepts of school chemistry into account, we quickly realize that the learning of chemical theories and facts alone cannot raise students' capabilities for coping with sustainable development issues to the necessary level by themselves. Adding a more society-oriented, multi-dimensional approach to chemistry education, however, gives the little extra shove which is needed to achieve this goal (Ware, 2001). With this addition, education becomes the most prominent field for learning about how chemistry is embedded in our life and society, including its ecologic, economical and societal impacts (Hofstein et al., 2011).

On the one hand, the central role of industrial production based on chemical principles gives chemistry education central relevance for ESD. Examples of this include the current debate concerning climate change and potential avenues of action for solving the problem (e.g.Feierabend and Eilks, 2010), the existence of (side-)effects on our personal lives caused by the production of goods (e.g.Marks and Eilks, 2010), the various alternatives for energy production and use (e.g.Feierabend and Eilks, 2011), innovative products stemming from chemistry which may aid in preserving natural resources (e.g.Burmeister and Eilks, 2012), or the interaction of chemical industry with local and regional economy and society (e.g.Hofstein and Kesner, 2006). On the other hand, learning about how chemical developments themselves are interwoven with ecological, economic and societal impacts and the decisions resulting from these issues is even more important. Thus, chemistry education shows great potential for bettering the level of general educational skills among students in the sense of participatory learning. This is because recent societal developments can be tied directly to chemistry and technology, then be dealt with using a multidimensional approach. Using controversial issues selected carefully from chemical, industrial and technological sources allows students a chance to experience firsthand how questions related to science or technology are handled by our society. By mimicking the societal mechanisms of debate and decision-making, learners have the opportunity to develop their personal capabilities in these areas. Additionally, this can aid in training pupils' skills in all of the aspects touched upon and help chemistry education to achieve a broader range of goals (Marks and Eilks, 2009; Sadler and Zeidler, 2009; Sadler, 2011).

Basic models of approaching sustainability issues in chemistry education

Adding sustainable development issues to the chemistry curriculum is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. For the last two to three decades, many pupils around the world have been faced in chemistry education with issues such as keeping water resources clean, dealing with the effects of acid rain, coping with the hole in the ozone layer, and searching for both renewable sources of energy and raw materials. These topics and others have been widely implemented as content in many chemistry curricula worldwide. Examples include Chemistry in the Community in the US (ACS, 2006), the Salters chemistry curriculum from the UK (Benett and Lubben, 2006), chemical industry case studies in Israel (Hofstein and Kesner, 2006), or environmentally oriented chemistry education in Germany (Bader, 1992; Bader and Blume, 1997). In any case, the question of how to deal with issues of sustainable development can take on completely different appearances and can follow completely different models. Although they partially overlap and can be integrated in different ways, we suggest thinking in the four different basic models presented below when it comes to implementing issues of sustainable development into formal chemistry education:

Model 1: Adopting green chemistry principles to the practice of science education lab work

The first model applies the philosophy of green chemistry (Anastas and Warner, 1998) to the handling of chemicals and lab work procedures in chemistry classes (Bader, 2003). Student experiments can be shifted from the macro- to the micro-scale, dangerous substances can be replaced by less poisonous alternatives, and catalysts can be used to stimulate reactions (e.g.Singh et al., 1999; Hugerat et al., 2006; Obendrauf, 2008). ESD's potential—at least when it deals with learning about chemistry's contribution to sustainable development—can be expanded, if students are able to recognize, compare and reflect upon the altered strategies. Students can learn how chemistry research and chemical industry attempt to minimize the use of resources, maximize the effects, and protect the environment. Karpudewan et al. (2007, 2009) have already demonstrated that this strategy has the potential to change student teachers' attitudes and knowledge. The strength of this approach is that chemistry education truly contributes to sustainability by reducing the amounts of chemicals used and by producing less waste. The weakness of the approach concerning ESD is that it is often less embedded into continuous self-reflection upon how society handles debates around changing technologies. In this case, students will not develop skills for contributing to society's decision-making on new or alternative technologies. Additionally, students will barely touch upon the controversial nature of developments in society and the real interplay between science, technology and society. In this case, the holistic approach of ESD will hardly be achieved as it is outlined above.

Model 2: Adding sustainability strategies as content in chemistry education

This model takes the strategies and efforts used to contribute to sustainability development into account when deciding which content to include in chemistry education. In this approach, the basic chemical principles behind sustainable and green chemistry and their industrial applications appear as topics within chemistry curricula (e.g.Lühken and Bader, 2003). Practical examples of this include the development of efficient processes in industrial chemistry in the fields of energy and raw materials conservation, research into the structure, properties and application of innovative catalysts, and the chemical considerations behind the production of fuels stemming from renewable materials (e.g.Bader and Blume, 1997). Learning about green chemistry and chemical research's contributions to sustainable development can also offer a basis for better understanding various developments in wide-ranging fields. The strength of this approach is that it highlights the learning of the chemical principles disguised behind everyday processes and end products, thus making them more meaningful to students (Pilot and Bulte, 2006; Ware, 2001). There are many examples of using such context, e.g. establishing connections to chemical industry in secondary (Hofstein and Kesner, 2006) or primary level (Evans et al., 2004). At any rate, a thorough understanding of the interplay between science, technology and society—in ESD terms the “interplay of economic, ecological and societal impacts”—will never take place if learners' concentration is primarily focused on (or even restricted to) the learning of chemical content behind its technological application. In such a scenario, the general skills necessary for participating in societal debates on socio-scientific issues will hardly have a chance to emerge. Making sustainability issues part of chemically-based content in the proper context can provide the initial step which offers learners access to sustainability issues as they exist in modern chemistry.

Model 3: Using controversial sustainability issues for socio-scientific issues which drive chemistry education

This third model integrates the chemistry learning using socio-scientific issues (SSI) having the tension of current societal debate behind them (e.g.Marks and Eilks, 2009). SSI-teaching does not primarily focus the learning of chemistry as a subject or sustainability issues per se. Instead, lessons tend to mould sustainable development education by developing general educational skills in the area of an individual's actions as a responsible member of society. This model's approach varies from that of the second model in that it includes both the chemical basis of knowledge and reflecting society's debate about its practical application in technology as factors to be learned. Model 3 focuses primarily on learning exactly how developments in chemistry can be and actually are evaluated and discussed within society using all of the sustainability dimensions (e.g.Burmeister and Eilks, 2012). This approach not only constitutes the explicit learning of chemistry, but also includes the learning about chemistry as it is dealt with in society. Examples with respect to sustainable chemistry include the ongoing controversy about the use of biofuels (e.g.Eilks, 2002; Feierabend and Eilks, 2011; Hiramatsu et al., 2009), the application of specific compounds and alternatives to them in everyday products (Marks and Eilks, 2010), and the evaluation of innovative products from chemistry using a multidimensional approach (Burmeister and Eilks, 2012). The aspects of understanding societal debates and developing appropriate skills to actively participate in them are systematically built into the lesson focus. Students learn how to take part in societal decision-making in order to contribute to shaping a sustainable future. The strength of this approach is that it is skill-oriented with a sharp focus on ESD. It closely mirrors the differentiation defined by Holbrook (2005), who has demanded more education through science instead of science through education. However, some socio-scientific issues of controversial nature have limited potential in the areas of individual and local action. Often, debate about new technologies is extremely complex and occurs primarily in expert's committees at the political level. In such an arena, the influence of the individual is very limited. But in a truly democratic society, no individual is hindered from entering the political scene if he or she wishes to. The type of teaching in this third model attempts to prepare students for just this eventuality.

Model 4: Chemistry education as a part of ESD-driven school development

The fourth model integrates chemistry education as part of ESD-driven development of a whole institution, especially to primary and secondary schools (Rauch, 2002). Such an approach demands opening chemistry classrooms even further (Breiting et al., 2005; De Haan, 2006). This model suggests that school life and teaching should become part of ESD. Educating children and students to become active citizens who have the ability to achieve sustainable lifestyles requires entire school process models. Such models include development, self-evaluation and reflection (Shallcross et al., 2006). All shareholders in the school system are required to explore future challenges, to clarify values, and to reflect on both learning and actively taking part in society in the light of ESD. If we understand school development as changing schools to become learning organizations offering new experience, reflections and innovations, we necessarily need to change both the way people lead discussions and act (Breiting et al., 2005). Chemistry education should help contribute to such an altered teaching culture. Many opportunities exist for opening chemistry teaching to reflect how this domain influences us in the here and now, including our current lives inside and outside of school or other educational institutions. Chemistry teaching can actively contribute to saving resources (energy, clean water, etc.) in local environments, including school. It can also offer suggestions for treating waste in an efficient fashion suitable for later recycling. Chemistry education no longer needs to stop at the point where teaching is limited to describing the chemical theories and knowledge behind sustainability issues and potential avenues of action. Chemistry lessons and school life morph into an action-based pattern of living and learning. Students gain firsthand experience of how taking action can fundamentally change their lives. This experience includes pupils seeing how their personal contributions to in-school decision-making processes factor into both changed behavior on their part and alterations in the learning process in which chemistry is an integral part.

In teaching practice, all four of the above-mentioned models may overlap or even combine in order to place a stronger focus on sustainability issues connected to chemistry education. Of course, possibilities of combining and contrasting the different approaches also belong to the question to whether apply them in primary, secondary, or higher chemistry education. Anyhow, a current debate is underway as to whether all four models should be considered as belonging to ESD-type teaching. McKeown (2006) suggests, for example, that pure learning about sustainable development does not constitute ESD-type education: “An important distinction is the difference between education about sustainable development and education for sustainable development. The first is an awareness lesson or theoretical discussion. The second is the use of education as a tool to achieve sustainability. In our opinion, more than a theoretical discussion is needed at this critical juncture in time. While some people argue that ‘for’ indicates indoctrination, we think ‘for’ indicates a purpose. All education serves a purpose or society would not invest in it.”

From our point of view all four models can contribute to learning about or for sustainable development. Table 1 shows the ESD potential of each of the four basic models. It also presents their potential with respect to learning about sustainable development, learning for sustainable development, and directly contributing to sustainable development because of imminent changes in social, ecological or economical practices.

Table 1 Reflection on the potential of the four basic models for dealing with ESD in chemistry education (− = low; o = medium; + = high; ++ = very high)
Potential for… Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
… learning about sustainable development. o ++ ++ +
… learning for sustainable development. ++ ++
… directly contributing to sustainable development. o +

Models 3 and 4 seem to hold the most promise with respect to ESD as education for sustainable development. But we must remain aware that ESD objectives are only part of the overall goals in chemistry education. Learning about the pure and applied sides of chemistry, understanding the nature of the subject, and allowing students to orient themselves on potential careers available within chemistry and technology are also important objectives. Such objectives might be better met with other curriculum strategies, especially the approach taken by Model 2. One also has to consider the fact that a context-based approach (Model 2) or a socio-scientific issue-based approach (Model 3) might be easier to implement than Model 4 in a chemistry curriculum for purely practical reasons. For example, the education about sustainable development found in Model 2 can readily be implemented into regular curricula with little need to totally re-orient them. Model 1 may actually represent the simplest path to take, because the strictest application of this model will touch neither the curriculum, nor the pedagogy underlying chemistry teaching. The only changes required are in chemicals, equipment and experimental procedures. However, Model 1 is also the most limited when it comes to contributing to ESD skill development.

The four models can be considered as hierarchical distinctions with the later models including at least essentials of the earlier models. However, in our point-of-view a balanced implementation and combination of them might actually be the most promising strategy for achieving the broadest range of ESD goals in chemistry education. Strategic employment of different models in relevant teaching units within the curriculum might provide a practical, feasible strategy for thoroughly combining and interweaving both learning about and for sustainable development in all areas of chemistry education.


The last section revealed that there are different strategies for implementing learning about and for sustainable development into the teaching and learning of chemistry. Even the quite simple, yet broadly feasible Model 1 approach offers an applicable method of applying ESD teaching. And the spectrum of possible action terminates with the advanced Model 4, which includes more comprehensive ESD-driven projects enhancing school development. But implementation also requires trained teachers. Teachers are the key for any sustainable innovation in schools (Spillane, 1999; Borko, 2004). If we want chemistry teachers to adopt any model connecting ESD and chemistry education, specific training in the necessary knowledge and skills set is unavoidable.

On the content side of the equation, teacher education must provide sufficient knowledge of the principles of green chemistry, technological applications and societal debates about the application of such features. The philosophy and pedagogy behind sustainable development should become obligatory topics in teacher training. This might be no problem for full trained chemists being teachers in higher education, but it is a crucial point for primary and secondary school teacher training. Simple changes in the content domain are not enough. We also need to alter teachers' education with respect to the pedagogy necessary for ESD chemistry education.

A recent, still unpublished interview study of 16 randomly-selected, experienced secondary chemistry teachers in Germany on their understanding of sustainable development and ESD can help shed some light on this topic. Within the study we revealed that all of the teachers had a rough idea of what is meant by sustainable development. However, most were unable to provide a concrete definition of the term or explicitly refer to essential events in the development of the contemporary version of sustainable development. The same was true for the concept of green chemistry. Most of the teachers interviewed possessed intuitive feelings on the subject. Yet none of them had ever learned about the generic principles involved, nor could they describe solid practices for applying these principles in the forums of research, industry, or school. Most of the teachers had completed their teacher training long before green chemistry even entered university education as a prominent issue in the field of chemistry. In-service teacher training in the German setting is very limited in the field of sustainability and, furthermore, is not an obligatory part of being a teacher. The case of ESD is quite similar. Even though DESD was almost halfway completed at the time the interviews took place, most of the participants had never heard about the UN program. They were not able to supply even a rudimentary description of ESD which was in line with the educational theories expressed by Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992). They were also unable to discuss actual examples of concrete practices in this field. These findings should not be seen as leveling the gun at teachers' collective heads, but rather as an indictment of DESD shareholders to better disseminate knowledge and implement programs. This study only provides a snapshot of the overall situation. Yet linking the insights briefly yielded by this snapshot with other related studies, e.g. on climate change (Feierabend et al., 2011), we can assume a basic lack of in-service teacher training, which is one of the largest stumbling blocks for thorough implementation of ESD in schools, in this case in the German-speaking realm.

Thus, a change in both pre-service and in-service teacher training of school science teachers is imperative. In order to properly apply even ESD Model 1, teachers need to possess specific skills in implementing microscopic-scale chemistry in the classroom. Lab work during teacher training should take the initiative and innovate coursework schedules to familiarize teachers with both micro-scale and low-cost experiments. One recent initiative in this field is the SALiS project ( But, teacher training should also make educators familiar with context-based and SSI-driven science education. Both of these curricular approaches are essential if teachers are ever to be able to apply Models 2 and 3. Additionally, Model 3 demands that practitioners are familiar with interdisciplinary and systemic thinking. This includes the adoption of pedagogies furthering debate and the promotion of both discourse and argumentation skills in science classes. Teachers need to be educated in a fashion that stresses chemistry as much more than a purely academic construct. Chemistry dramatically influences everything from the life of the individual to society as a whole. Experiencing this should be included as a part of university teacher training. Chemistry teacher education should more thoroughly mirror the importance of the subject, including the use of chemistry education as a tool allowing students to actively learn how to shape their society in a positive, sustainable fashion. This understanding is also one of the prerequisites for finally adopting Model 4. Hopefully, the examples presented in this special issue can act as a springboard for further research into and contemplations about leading direction to future, necessary developments in this area.


  1. ACS, (2006), Chemistry in the Community. Fifth edition. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunta.
  2. Anastas P. T. and Warner J. C., (1998), Green Chemistry Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University.
  3. Bader H. J., (1992), Less polluting technologies, regrowing resources and recycling: New topics in the teaching of chemistry, Int. Newsl. Chem. Educ., 38, 12.
  4. Bader H. J. and Blume R., (1997), Environmental chemistry in classroom experiments. Delhi: IUPAC.
  5. Bader H. J., (2003), Nachhaltigkeit und nachhaltiges Arbeiten im Chemieunterricht, Praxis Naturwiss. Chem. Sch., 52(8), 16–20.
  6. Benett J. and Lubben F., (2006), Context-based chemistry: The Salters-approach, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 28(9), 999–1015.
  7. Borko J., (2004), Professional development and teacher learning: mapping the terrain, Educ. Res., 33(8), 3–15.
  8. Bradley J. D., (2005), Chemistry Education for Development. Chemical Education International, 7, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  9. Breiting S., Mayer M. and Mogensen, F., (2005), Quality criteria for ESD-schools, Vienna: ENSI.
  10. Burmeister M. and Eilks I., (2012), An example of learning about plastics and their evaluation as a contribution to Education for Sustainable Development in secondary school chemistry teaching, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 13(2) 10.1039/c1rp90067f.
  11. Centi G. and Perathoner S., (2009), From green to sustainable chemistry. In F. Cavani, G. Centi, S. Perathoner and F. Trifiro (ed.), Sustainable industrial processes (pp. 1–72). Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.
  12. De Haan G., (2006), The BLK ‘21’ programme in Germany: a ‘Gestaltungskompetenz’-based model for education for sustainable development, Environ. Educ. Res., 12, 19–32.
  13. De Haan G., Borman I. and Leicht A., (2010), Special issue: The midway point of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: Where do we stand? Int. Rev. Educ., 56, 199–372.
  14. ECCC, (1993), Chemistry for a clean world. The Hague: European Communities Chemistry Council.
  15. Eilks I., (2002), Teaching ‘Biodiesel’: A sociocritical and problem-oriented approach to chemistry teaching, and students' first views on it, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 3, 67–75.
  16. Elmose S. and Roth W.-M., (2005), Allgemeinbildung: Readiness for living in a risk society, J. Curr. Stud., 37(1), 11–34.
  17. Evans C., Hogarth S. and Parvin J., (2004), Children Challenging Industry: analysis of CCI project data 5 years on. York: University of York.
  18. Feierabend T. and Eilks I., (2010), Raising students’ perception of the relevance of science teaching and promoting communication and evaluation capabilities using authentic and controversial socio-scientific issues in the framework of climate change, Sci. Educ. Int., 21(3), 176–196.
  19. Feierabend T. and Eilks I., (2011), Teaching the societal dimension of chemistry using a socio-critical and problem-oriented lesson plan on bioethanol usage, J. Chem. Educ., 88, 1250–1256.
  20. Feierabend T., Jokmin S. and Eilks I., (2011), Chemistry teachers' views on teaching ‘Climate Change’—An interview case study from research-oriented learning in teacher education, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 11(1), 85–91.
  21. Fensham P. J., (2004), Defining an identity, Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  22. Hart P., (2007), Environmental education. In S. K. Abell and N. G Lederman (ed.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 689–728). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  23. Hartings M. R. and Fahy D., (2011), Communicating chemistry for public engagement, Nat. Chem., 3, 674–677.
  24. Hawkes J., (2001), The fourth pillar of sustainability: culture's essential role in public planning. Melbourne: Common Ground.
  25. Heinrich M., Minsch J., Rauch F., Schmidt E. and Vielhaber C., (2007), Bildung und Nachhaltige Entwicklung: eine lernende Strategie für Österreich. Münster: Monsenstein and Vannerdat.
  26. Hiramatsu A., Takabay K., Utsumi R., Fujii H. and Ogawa H., (2009), A lesson model fostering fine ideas in chemistry concerning biodiesel on the basis of “Education for Sustainable Development”: potentialities for collaboration with social studies, Chem. Educ. J., 13, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  27. Holbrook J., (1998), Operationalising scientific and technological literacy—a new approach to science teaching, Sci. Educ. Int., 9(1), 13–18.
  28. Holbrook J., (2005), Making chemistry teaching relevant. Chem. Educ. Int., 7, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  29. Holbrook J. and Rannikmäe M., (2007), The nature of science education for enhancing scientific literacy, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 29(11), 1347–1362.
  30. Holman J., (1986), Science and Technology in Society. General guide for teachers. The Association for Science Education: College Lane. Hatfield: Herts.
  31. Hofstein A., Eilks I. and Bybee R., (2011), Societal issues and their importance for contemporary science education: a pedagogical justification and the state of the art in Israel, Germany and the USA, Int. J. Sci. Math. Educ. Published online first January 4, 2011.
  32. Hofstein A. and Kesner M., (2006), Industrial chemistry and school chemistry: making chemistry studies more relevant, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 28, 1017–1039.
  33. Hugerat M., Schwarz P. and Livneh M., (2006), Microscale chemistry experimentation for all ages. Haifa. AACE.
  34. Hutzinger O., (1999), The greening of chemistry—Is it sustainable? Environ. Sci. Poll. Res., 6, 123.
  35. Kant I., (1787, reprinted 1956). Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Hamburg: Felix Meiner.
  36. Karpudewan M., Ismail Z. H. and Mohamed N., (2007), Impact of Green Chemistry experiments on pre-Service teachers' environmental values. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011, at
  37. Karpudewan M., Ismail Z. H. and Mohamed N., (2009), The integration of Green Chemistry experiments with sustainable development concepts in pre-service teachers' curriculum: experiences from Malaysia, Int. J. Sust. High. Educ., 10(2), 118–135.
  38. Klafki W., (2000), Didaktik Analysis as the core for preparation of instruction. In I. Westbury, S. Hopmann and K. Riquarts (ed.). Teaching as a reflective practice: the German Didaktik tradition (pp. 85–108). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  39. Lazlo P., (2006), On the self-image of chemists 1950–2000, HYLEInt. J. Phil. Chem., 12, 99–130.
  40. Lühken A. and Bader H. J., (2003), Energy input from microwaves and ultra sound—examples of new approaches to Green Chemistry. In Royal Society of Chemistry (ed.), Green Chemistry. Cambridge: Royal Chemical Society.
  41. Marks R. and Eilks I., (2009), Promoting scientific literacy using a socio-critical and problem-oriented approach to chemistry teaching: concept, examples, experiences, Int. J. Sci. Environ. Educ., 4(3), 231–245.
  42. Marks R. and Eilks I., (2010), Research-based development of a lesson plan on shower gels and musk fragrances following a socio-critical and problem-oriented approach to chemistry teaching, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 11(2), 129–141.
  43. McKeown R., (2002), The ESD toolkit 2.0. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  44. McKeown R., (2006), Education for sustainable development toolkit. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  45. Millar R., (2006), Twenty-first century science: insights from the design and implementation of a scientific literacy approach in school science, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 28(13), 1499–1521.
  46. Meadows D. H., Meadows D., Randers J. and Behrens W. H., (1972), The Limits to Growth, Washington: Potomac Associates.
  47. Mogensen F. and Schnack K., (2010), The action competence approach and the ‘new’ discourse of education for sustainable development, competence and quality criteria, Envrion. Educ. Res., 16(1), 59–76.
  48. Obendrauf V., (2008), More small scale hands on experiments for easier teaching and learning. Chem. Educ. Int., 8, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 01, 2011, at
  49. Pederson J. E. and Totten S., (2001), Beliefs of science teachers towards teaching of science/technological/societal issues: Are we addressing national standards? Bull. Sci. Techn. Soc., 21(5), 376–393.
  50. Paden M., (2000), Education for sustainability and environmental education. In K. A. Wheeler and A. P Bijur (ed.), Education for a sustainable future (pp. 7–14). New York: Kluwer.
  51. Pilot A. and Bulte A. M. W., (2006), Special issue: Context based chemistry education. Int. J. Sci. Educ., 28(9), 953–1112.
  52. Rauch F., (2002), The potential of Education for Sustainable Development for reform in schools, Environ. Educ. Res., 8(1), 43–52.
  53. Rauch F., (2004), Education for sustainability: A regulative idea and trigger for innovation. In W. Scott and S. Gough (ed.) Key issues in sustainable development and learning: A critical review (pp. 149–151). London: Roudlege Falmer.
  54. Rauch F., (2010), What do regulative ideas in education for sustainable development and scientific literacy as myth have in common? In I. Eilks and B. Ralle (ed.), Contemporary Science EducationImplications from Science Education Research about Orientations, Strategies and Assessment (pp. 35–46). Aachen: Shaker.
  55. Roth W.-M. and Lee S., (2004), Science education as/for participation in the community, Sci. Educ., 88(2), 263–291.
  56. Sadler T. D. and Zeidler D., (2009), Scientific literacy, PISA, and socioscientific discourse: Assessment for progressive aims of science education, J. Res. Sci. Teach., 46(8), 909–921.
  57. Schwartz A. T., (2006), Contextualized chemistry education: The American experience, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 28(9), 977–998.
  58. Shallcross T., Robinson J. and Pace P., (ed.) (2006), Creating sustainable environments in our schools. Staffordshire: Trendham Books.
  59. Singh M. M., Szafran Z. and Pike R. M., (1999), Microscale chemistry and green chemistry: Complementary pedagogies, J. Chem. Educ., 76, 1684–1687.
  60. Solomon J. and Aikenhead G., (ed.) (1994), STS education: international perspectives on reform. New York: Teachers College Press.
  61. Spillane J. P., (1999), External reform initiatives and teachers' efforts to reconstruct their practice: the mediating role of teachers' zones of enactment, J. Curr. Stud., 31, 143–175.
  62. UN, (1987), Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011 at
  63. UN, (2005), Resolution A/60/1. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011 at
  64. UNCED, (1992), Agenda 21. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011 at
  65. UNESCO, (2005a), World decade of education for sustainable development. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011 at
  66. UNESCO, (2005b), Teaching and learning for a sustainable futurea multimedia teacher education programme. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011, at
  67. UNESCO, (2005c), Guidelines and recommendations for reorienting teacher education to address sustainability. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011, at
  68. UNESCO, (2006), International implementation scheme. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, July 10, 2011, at
  69. Van Aalsvoort J., (2004), Activity theory as a tool to address the problem of chemistry's lack of relevance in secondary school chemistry education, Int. J. Sci. Educ., 26(13), 1635–1651.
  70. Ware S. A., (2001), Teaching chemistry from a societal perspective, Pure Appl. Chem., 73(7), 1209–1214.
  71. Westbury I., Hopmann S. and Riquarts K., (ed.) (2000), Teaching as a reflective practice. The German Didaktik tradition. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  72. Wheeler K., (2000), Sustainability from five perspectives. In K. A. Wheeler and A. P Bijur (ed.), Education for a sustainable future (p. 2–6). New York: Kluwer.


This article is part of a themed issue on sustainable development and green chemistry in chemistry education.

This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2012