Educators and chemical sciences professionals say curriculum content for climate change and sustainability is ‘falling far short’ of delivering the knowledge and skills needed by the workforce of the future.
And while chemistry educators think carbon literacy should be among the ‘most important topics’ for pupils to learn about before they leave school, they say an ‘outdated’ curriculum with too much emphasis on petrochemicals is failing to highlight the role of chemistry in developing the new materials and technology needed to tackle climate change.
The findings of an extensive survey of educators, students, and practicing chemists across the UK have been published by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in its report: Green shoots – a sustainable chemistry curriculum for a sustainable future.
Sarah Robertson, Director Education and Professional Practice at the Royal Society of Chemistry said: “Today’s young people are acutely aware of the climate change and sustainability challenges they face. By the time a five-year-old starting education this year will leave school, not only will these challenges be an even more pressing priority, but the job market will also look very different.
We have a responsibility to educate and inspire young people throughout their education to prepare them for the challenges the world will face in the years to come – and the careers that arise from those challenges
“Despite this and the UK’s work toward achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and fulfilling a pledge to create 2 million green jobs by 2030, many academics, professionals and students feel that current chemistry curricula are falling short of equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to fulfil these careers and play their part as responsible citizens.
“We have a responsibility to educate and inspire young people throughout their education to prepare them for the challenges the world will face in the years to come – and the careers that arise from those challenges.
“Under the Government’s plan to build back greener and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we need people with the right skills and knowledge for roles in the chemical sciences that will support sustainability into the future.
“The findings of our latest research in this area have a very clear message: the school chemistry curriculum must be updated to close this gap in skills and knowledge needed for green jobs now and in the future.”
Sustainability and climate change
The RSC’s report, Green shoots – a sustainable chemistry curriculum for a sustainable future, collated views on the chemistry curriculum from young people aged 11–18, educators working with young people aged 5–19, and chemists in academia and industry, in the UK and Ireland.
The organisation found that over three quarters (77%) of respondents from academia and industry felt it is very important that the school chemistry curriculum should include content that directly relates to sustainability and climate change. Educators agree, with 84% of 11–19 educators and 96% of 5–11 educators saying the same.
Over two thirds (67%) of educators, and the same percentage of practicing chemists, felt it should be high priority for the relevant government or education department to prioritise sustainability and climate change in the chemistry curriculum.
Over a quarter (29%) of respondents from academia and industry felt sustainability and climate change content did not do a good job of supporting progression into further study or careers in the chemical sciences, with a further 40% stating that they felt the content worked only ‘somewhat well’ in this regard.
Participants noted factors including the curriculum being ‘very academic and stale’, with little to no space or time for discussions on climate change, sustainability and their relationship to the sciences.
Meanwhile, 68% of practicing chemists stated they believe there is already a skills gap in terms of the requirements for green jobs, both now and in the future – with 30% believing this gap was very significant.
The report shows teachers feel the curriculum and time pressures are both major barriers to achieving this, and this resonates with my own experience
Amongst the specific knowledge and skills gaps identified were green chemistry, carbon capture and the impact of chemistry on the environment, demonstrating the amount of work needed to bring chemistry’s role in tackling the climate crisis to life for young people.
30% of educators working with 11–19 year-olds say there is too much material in the curriculum that is ‘overly complicated, irrelevant, boring or misrepresented’, with a fifth (19%) of teachers saying content relating to fossil fuels should be reduced.
With 49% of older teens asking for more detailed coverage of sustainability and climate change in lessons – while 66% of those aged 17 and 18 are looking for more detailed coverage in chemistry lessons.
Martyn Steiner, Environmental Science teacher at Halcyon School said: “I absolutely agree that teachers and students want to see more teaching on sustainability and climate change.
“The report shows teachers feel the curriculum and time pressures are both major barriers to achieving this, and this resonates with my own experience.
“I feel sure teachers would be delighted to teach these issues if they were better supported with time-saving resources that link the existing curriculum to sustainability issues or, more importantly, if exams and Ofsted explicitly looked for evidence of deeper understanding of environmental issues.
“This report shows that we have a fantastic opportunity to use the momentum gathered by hosting COP26 to transform the way we teach the science of climate change and sustainability.”
Sarah Robertson added: “There is a huge opportunity here for our policy makers to reshape the curriculum in a way that excites and captures the imagination and career aspirations of young people.
“At the Royal Society of Chemistry we have made a commitment to support and advise policymakers, and to continue to provide resources and professional development opportunities for chemistry educators, as well as demonstrating the value that chemistry can play in inspiring change.
“This will enable society to find the best possible solutions to tackle climate change both now and in the future.