Systems Thinking and Civic Engagement for Climate Justice in General Chemistry: CO2 and PM 2.5 Pollution from Coal Combustion

Sonya Remington Doucette, Bellevue College

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This activity helps students begin to identify the forms in which chemicals occur in the large and complex real-world systems that exist beyond the small-scale simplistic chemical systems presented in General Chemistry textbooks, classrooms, and laboratories. As such, this activity contributes to a much-needed change in the General Chemistry curriculum toward a systems-thinking approach that will keep chemistry relevant to the 21st century.10,11,12,13,14 (See References and Resources section for more information.) The activity also helps student see how the chemistry content and topics they are learning can be used to both understand and address the unresolved societal issue of climate injustice, especially through civic engagement. The activity teaches General Chemistry content and topics through a case study of urban air pollution and rural climate change impacts on marginalized communities living in Mongolia. The case study captures student attention and interest and engages their emotions, which, in turn, motivates them to learn about the chemistry that underlies the challenges faced by these communities.

Students watch a short documentary about this climate justice case study, identify chemistry topics and questions from the case study, gain knowledge of and apply key chemistry concepts crucial to systems thinking in chemistry, discuss the case study with friends or family to learn about civic engagement, and reflect on that conversation in response to a discussion prompt. Students view the documentary, "Dying to Breathe: Mongolia's Polluted Air," by Unreported World to learn how fossil fuel-derived CO2 and particulate (PM 2.5) pollution from coal burning disproportionately affects low-income and rural communities. Students share their general thoughts and reactions and their understandings about the chemistry they observed in the documentary. They are encouraged to raise questions about the chemistry they want to know more about, and to share their analysis of the composition (atom, ion, ionic compound, molecule) and phases (solid, liquid, gas, dissolved) of the chemicals present in the case study. (I recognized the importance of students learning to identify composition and phase of matter, in order to learn "chemical systems thinking," from work by Vicente Talanquer2,3,9. See References and Resources section. Observing students as I implemented this activity convinced me of the importance of their actively discussing chemical composition and phases.) I offer feedback on some of the students' responses and questions by discussing how to determine chemical composition and phase and drawing connections to the chemistry content and skills covered in the course, especially those important to learning chemistry within a systems-thinking context. I also relate PM 2.5 and CO2 from coal combustion to local air pollution issues that the students experience themselves. For example, in Washington State, wildfire smoke (PM 2.5 pollution) is becoming more common due to hotter and drier conditions (brought on by fossil fuel-derived CO2). An out-of-class assignment asks students to discuss with family or friends how the climate justice issues from the documentary connect to the chemistry content they are learning, and also how the local communities affected by PM 2.5 and CO2 pollution can address the challenges they face. They post to a course discussion board about their conversation.

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Learning Goals

  1. Recognize how polluting chemicals produced by fossil fuel burning in the atmosphere creates climate injustices for certain human populations;
  2. Gain knowledge of and apply key chemistry concepts crucial to systems thinking in chemistry, particularly as relevant to understanding local and global systemic issues related to climate change and air pollution;
  3. Use knowledge of chemistry concepts to discuss atmospheric pollution and related climate injustice with others (civic engagement);
  4. Identify ways that local people and communities experiencing climate injustice can address the challenges they are facing; and
  5. Build science literacy and science communication skills a through civic engagement assignment.

Context for Use

This activity was designed for the first quarter of General Chemistry at a community college. I use it during the first week of class to set the tone for learning chemistry within a systems-thinking context and also to provide context for a quarter-long air pollution research project. Students do not need exposure to any General Chemistry course content prior to watching the documentary. As such, this activity could be adapted for other introductory non-science major chemistry courses. The class size was 24 students and I presented it during class time, but it could be adapted for much larger classes and/or much of the in-class activity could be completed by students prior to class to reduce the amount of class time needed (see Activity Descriptions and Teaching Materials for suggested tips for these adaptations).

Showing the documentary and soliciting student responses requires about one hour of class time (but see Activity Descriptions and Teaching Materials for suggestions and tips to reduce the amount of class time needed). The introductory documentary (available on YouTube) is 24 minutes long and the follow-up in-class activity is about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the level of student engagement and the number of responses and questions from students to which the instructor chooses to respond. "Sticky notes" on Jamboard (free online) and Zoom polling were used in class to collect, share out, and assess students' general thoughts and reactions to the documentary, ideas about the chemistry they observed, their questions about the chemistry they want to know more about, and their analysis of the composition and phases of the chemicals present in the case study. If done during class, students need to be able to access Jamboard on their own personal device during class time, or some other technology that allows them to share open-ended responses to questions for the instructor and class to see in real-time. It is very helpful to use a polling technology, such as a Zoom poll or Poll Everywhere, to collect, share, and assess student analysis of the composition and phases of the chemicals present in the case study. This multiple-choice approach saves class time because there is a correct answer to these questions and polling technologies automatically summarize student responses into percentages and display them immediately for the instructor and all students to see. A discussion board used for students' climate justice and chemistry conversations was created in the Canvas learning management system (LMS). Any LMS with discussion board capability would work.

Description and Teaching Materials

About one hour of class time is needed to implement this activity with a class of about 24 students and this is described first. Further below, I suggest adaptations that can be made to implement this activity for larger class sizes and/or to reduce the amount of class time required to as little as 15 - 20 minutes.

Implement In Class With Small Class Size (~24 Students):

Instructor Class Preparation: Check documentary link, create a Jamboard and/or multiple-choice polling questions, create a PowerPoint and/or handouts with questions and other content, create out-of-class assignment on discussion board

Step 1: Watching the Documentary (25 minutes). I start by reading aloud to students the questions on Slide 2 of the PowerPoint presentation included with this activity. These questions prompt students to think about these questions as they watch the documentary and prepare to respond to them after viewing the documentary. I show the documentary "Dying the Breathe: Mongolia's Polluted Air" by Unreported World, available on YouTube:

Step 2: Responding to the Documentary (10 minutes). After showing the documentary, I solicit student responses to Questions 1 and 2 on Slide 2 of the PowerPoint presentation. Jamboard works well for this, as student responses are anonymous and immediately visible to the instructor and all participating students. Here is an example of how this could be implemented using two slides in a Jamboard: (If using Jamboard, be sure that anyone with the link can edit the Jamboard so that students can type and post their "sticky notes." The default is that they cannot edit. Click on the blue "Share" button in Jamboard on the upper right to change the setting to "Anyone on the internet with the link can edit.") I allow about 5 minutes for students to type their responses and then spend about 5 minutes highlighting poignant reflections and debrief on the chemistry questions. I save student responses on Slide 2 of the Jamboard. (After class, go back to the blue Jamboard "Share" button and change the setting to "Viewer" so that "Anyone on the internet with this link can view." This prevents students from editing their Jamboard responses later.) I take a screen shot of the Jamboard and bring their questions about the chemistry in this case study back to their attention at various points throughout the quarter when we cover content relevant to the questions they asked. This helps re-capture student attention and activate their prior knowledge, as the Mongolia case study becomes prior knowledge and serves as an "anchoring phenomenon" (please see "Social Justice Issues As Phenomena"1 in References and Resources for more information about this teaching practice).

Step 3: Provide Local Examples and Solutions (5 minutes). After debriefing from the documentary, I give students local examples of how PM 2.5 pollution and CO2 emissions affect them and the region where they live. In Washington state, and in the western United States in general, a major issue is wildfire smoke (PM 2.5 pollution) becoming more common due to hotter and drier conditions (fossil fuel-derived CO2). Slides 3 through 6 of the attached PowerPoint presentation show examples of local events and how PM 2.5 pollution and fossil fuel-derived CO2 emissions affect students personally. In other regions not affected by wildfire smoke, PM 2.5 emissions of gasoline or coal-fired power plants could be the focus. For fossil fuel-derived CO2 emissions, there any many other climate-driven phenomena around the world that could be the focus of discussion, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, flooding and many more. I also present chemistry-related solutions to the problems of CO2 and PM 2.5 pollution and provide students with links to articles and other resources where they can learn more (see Slide 7).

Step 4: Fostering Chemical Systems Thinking (15 minutes). Next, I launch a live poll to solicit student responses to the two multiple-choice questions about the chemical and physical forms of matter found on Slides 8 and 9 of the PowerPoint presentation provided with this activity. (I use a Zoom poll.) These two questions address Question 3 on Slide 2, which I have asked them to consider while watching the documentary. I give them about 1 – 2 minutes to respond to the poll and I aim for a 90 % or greater response rate; I tell the students that the poll is anonymous and ungraded and ask them to take their best guess if they are unsure. After the poll, I note the most popular answers (as reported and displayed in real-time to the instructor and all students by Zoom as percentage of total students who selected each choice) and then ask students to tell me what chemicals they think are present in the different chemical forms and physical forms they selected during the poll. CO2 and the coal almost always come up. Some students know about NOx, SO2, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and O3 (a secondary pollutant produced from NOx and VOCs) and if they do not, I bring them up. I use the flow diagrams found on Slides 10 and 11 of the power point, and the online PubChem database [] to look up melting and boiling points, and show students how to use these tools to identify the possible chemical forms and physical forms of the chemicals that we collectively decided were present in the atmosphere in this case study (CO2, coal, NOx, SO2, VOCs, O3, others). I created the flow diagrams related to chemical and physical forms of matter on Slides 10 and 11 based initially on systems thinking in chemistry education work by Vicente Talanquer2,3(see papers in References and Resources section). The details and actual operationalization of Talanquer's ideas in my classroom are based on my interactions with students over three quarters of teaching this case study, continual revision of my flow diagrams and the information that I provided to students, and, additionally, my observations of students' needs and misunderstandings and the information they need to correctly identify the forms in which chemicals actually occur under different conditions in the large and complex systems of the real world. The flow diagrams are simplifications of the chemistry and of reality and they omit some chemical forms (i.e. metallic solids) and physical forms (i.e. supercritical fluids) that are covered later on in General Chemistry, but the diagrams provide an excellent starting point that give students much to grapple with. This part of the class session also allows me to introduce these two flow diagrams, which I use frequently throughout the quarter because they are very important to helping students learn to identify the forms in which chemicals occur in the large and complex real-world systems that exist beyond the small-scale simplistic systems presented and studied in General Chemistry textbooks, classrooms, and laboratories.

Step 5: Wrapping Up and Explaining Out-of-Class Assignment (5 minutes). At the end of class, I assign a civic engagement activity called "Climate Justice and Chemistry Conversation" during which students discuss what they learned with friends and family, come up with at least one way that the communities affected by PM 2.5 and CO2 pollution can address the challenges they face through civic engagement, and then post to a class Discussion Board. During their conversation, they will begin to generate ideas for civic engagement by the affected communities, and I provide them with a broad menu of civic engagement activities on Slide 12 of the activity PowerPoint, which helps further stimulate their thinking about different possibilities. Canvas learning management system (LMS) works well for the discussion board, but any LMS with discussion board capability would work. An example of this activity and discussion prompts is included in the attached Word file. Students are given one week to complete the activity and post to the discussion board.

Implementing in a Larger Class Size and/or Using Less Class Time:

For a larger class, this could still work nicely in class as explained above. My only suggestion is to allow more class time because of the larger number of student ideas and questions contributed during Step 4 to allow for more student input.

To use less class time, this activity could be reduced to about 15 – 20 minutes of class time rather than 1 hour. Steps 1, 2, and 4 could be done by students as homework prior to class if the instructor asked students to watch the documentary prior to class (Step 1), set up a Jamboard or Discussion Board for students to share out their general reactions to the documentary and questions about the chemistry (Step 2), and multiple choice questions about the physical forms and chemical forms of matter present in the case study (Step 4). The instructor would view student responses prior to class and select what to present during class time. Depending on the students and supporting materials provided by the instructor prior to class, Step 4 may be difficult to assign as homework since students will not have seen the flow diagrams before and will have a lot of questions. If Step 4 were completed in class, with Steps 1 and 2 completely by students prior to class, then it would take closer to 25 – 30 minutes for this activity.

Climate Justice and Chemistry Conversation Activity.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Apr19 22)

Introduction to Air Pollution.pptx (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 496kB Mar29 22)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Steps 1, 2, 3 and 5. These parts of this activity are very straightforward and students seem to do well with them. Many students, especially young students, are shocked at the scale of the problem faced by marginalized Mongolians such as the families they get to know in the documentary. You can see this in their Jamboard responses to the first question on Slide 2 of the power point. Acknowledging and validating student reactions is important; the first Jamboard slides provide a chance to do this. In three quarters teaching this activity, with a total of about 150 students, one student was visibly upset and told me they could not watch the documentary. Because of the potential for cases like this, it is good to be aware of trauma-informed pedagogy4 (see References and Resources). Young students are often naïve about the role of governments and private businesses in causing the systemic problems such as the climate injustices in Dying to Breathe and they make statements on the first Jamboard slide such as: "I can't believe the Mongolian government allows this to happen." Because of student shock and overwhelm, it is important to present students with solutions that are playing out in the real-world (see Slide 7 of the power point). When dealing with the overwhelming issues of racial and socioeconomic inequality as they intersect with climate and environmental change, I have found it's important to allow students to first express their thoughts and emotions to grapple with the emotional as well as the cognitive complexity of the issues. And then, it's also important to explore solutions, so that students can envision ways these difficult issues are being--or could be--addressed.5,6,7,8(Please see References and Resources for more resources.)

Step 4. Students struggle the most with the systems-thinking piece. This is not surprising since General Chemistry is not taught from a systems perspective at the vast majority of colleges and universities, despite emerging thoughts about transforming chemistry in this way to keep the discipline of chemistry relevant to 21st century needs.10,11,12,13,14 (Please see References and Resources for more resources.)

Common areas of confusion for Step 4 come in with the seemingly basic chemistry concepts needed to understand how chemistry is relevant to the local and global systems affected by fossil fuel burning. To learn chemistry in a systems-thinking framework, students need to understand where chemicals are located within a system and to identify the forms in which chemicals occur in the large and complex real-world systems that exist beyond the small-scale simplistic chemical systems presented in General Chemistry textbooks, classrooms, and laboratories. As instructors, we usually present and breeze quickly through the different phases of matter (solid, liquid, gas, dissolved) and the different chemical forms of matter (molecule, ionic compound, ion, atom) as part of the first chapter of a General Chemistry class. However, we take for granted that students can actually use these terms and concepts to describe chemical systems. The vast majority cannot without more support (such as the flow diagrams on Slides 10 and 11 of the PowerPoint).

For example, when presented with the chemical formula "CO2" and no additional information, students should be able to identify that CO2 is a molecule (and not a polyatomic ion or ionic compound, for example) because the two elements that make up the CO2 are both nonmetals. Early in General Chemistry, we teach them that when nonmetals share electrons to bond with each other, a molecule results. By helping them think through this and identify the correct chemical form for CO2 (that is is a molecule), it helps to reinforce for them that many molecules (studied in early General Chemistry) are made of all nonmetals that are covalently bonded together (share electrons) and then to help them use the nonmetals sections of the periodic table to identify nonmetals in a compound. This is a seemingly simple chemistry concept, but when students try to apply this to thinking about chemicals that are part of a large and complex real-world system, the concepts described in this paragraph have to be continually reinforced.

For building an understanding of physical forms of matter, students should be able to identify that carbon dioxide is a gas in the atmosphere and that when written in a chemical equation, it looks like this with a (g) subscript: CO2(g). This is also seemingly a simple chemical concept, but produces a lot of confusion later on in General Chemistry when gases then dissolve in water according to Henry's Law: CO2(aq). It can help to emphasize melting points and boiling points of chemicals and how those can be used to determine their physical forms when referenced to the temperature (and pressure) conditions of the real world. Showing students around databases such as PubChem and giving instruction on what information to look for and use to make a determination of physical form (or state or phase) really helps.

Finally, the students should be able to identify that CO2 in the atmosphere is part of a mixture of other gases (a fairly homogeneous mixture) and that PM 2.5 particles themselves are heterogeneous mixtures of a lot of different chemicals. Homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures are also concepts defined and presented early in General Chemistry, so this case study also offers an opportunity for students to work with those concepts. As with chemical and physical form examples in the last two paragraphs, this is a seemingly simple concept, but students need a lot of practice with it when chemistry is taken out of the textbook and applied to complex systems in the real world.

Additional Information on Mongolia. Here is a little more background that might help answer student questions that come up in class. Ulaanbaatar's air quality problems are exacerbated by its topography: the city is located in a bowl (depression) with mountains nearby. Winter weather creates temperature inversions that literally trap the smoke and keep it from drifting away, thus making the air pollution worse. Questions students often ask are: "What is burned instead of coal in the countryside? Doesn't that cause pollution too?" In the countryside, most Mongolians are herders of some combination of sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, horses, and camels. For warmth and cooking, herder families collect and burn the dried dung from their animals; the dung burns very completely so it produces much less dangerous smoke, and what smoke is generated readily blows away in the wide open landscapes of the Mongolian countryside. Students also ask: "Why do they have to burn coal in Ulaanbaatar? Why don't they just burn something cleaner and use clean energy?" The answer is that Mongolians living in poor neighborhoods in Ulaanbaatar live in their traditional "gers" (which rhymes with "mares" -- they are round tents or yurts) whose only source of heat are small stoves. There is no ready source of animal dung in the city. Mongolia has enormous deposits of coal, so that is what is affordable (basic supply and demand). Ulaanbaatar also burns coal for electricity generation, but this coal is of somewhat higher quality in that it produces less particulate matter; additionally, the power plants in the city use some pollution-control technology. Alternative energy sources for Mongolia could be solar and wind energy. There is a lot of sunshine year-round and enormous open space for both solar and wind-power generation; with investment, both of these renewable resources could replace coal for much of the country's needs.


In this section, I describe how I assess each learning goal.

1. Recognize how polluting chemicals produced by fossil fuel burning in the atmosphere creates climate injustices for certain human populations.

I use the first and second questions that students are asked about the documentary for formative assessment and feedback (the first and second slides here:

2. Gain knowledge of and apply key chemistry concepts crucial to systems thinking in chemistry, particularly as relevant to understanding local and global systemic issues related to climate change and air pollution

I use student responses to the two Zoom poll questions (Slides 8 and 9), and the questions they ask during Step 4, for formative assessment and feedback during class time. I can also sometimes glean additional feedback (for my knowledge as the instructor so that I can know how my students are thinking about these issues) from student Discussion posts, but there is not a direct question about this as part of the Discussion prompt.

3. Use knowledge of chemistry concepts to discuss atmospheric pollution and related climate injustice with others (civic engagement)

I evaluate students' ability to handle these concepts and provide summative feedback using the out-of-class "Climate Justice and Chemistry Conversations" assignment. Their grade for this assignment is based on:

(a) engaging in a conversation outside of class (part (a) of students' Discussion posts)

(b) accurately identifying and describing the climate justice issue(s) and the chemistry content/topics relevant to the issue(s) (parts (b) and (c) of students' Discussion posts)

(c) providing thorough and thoughtful responses to the discussion questions (all parts of students' Discussion posts)

4. Identify ways that local people and communities experiencing climate injustice can address the challenges they are facing

I evaluate students' ability to identify at least one feasible idea for civic engagement by the Mongolian communities affected by pollution. They also have to explain why they think this would work. I do not grade this part for accuracy, but instead for effort and thoughtfulness of response. (part (e) of students' Discussion posts)

5. Build science literacy and science communication skills through civic engagement

I evaluate students' ability to accurately explain chemistry concepts they are learning in class to a non-scientist during their conversation. I do grade this part for accuracy. (part (d) of students' Discussion posts)

References and Resources

Direct links to some web resources are included in the descriptions above and in the materials provided (power point and Word document). Other web resources referenced above or that support this lesson as listed below. This work is supported in part by NSF-IUSE grant (DUE 2043535)

1"Social Justice Issues As Phenomena" This is an online discuss on Zoom meant for K-12 educators, but very relevant to this activity and for 100- and 200-level college courses, especially taught at a community college, in general. The discussion features Dr. Salina Gray and Dr. Alexis Patterson Williams as they talk about their lessons that focus their chemistry content around the Flint Water Crisis. Salina and Alexis walk us through their lessons, as they and the facilitator discuss how you can target the "normal science stuff" while tying in social justice issues, and the impact this approach can have on your students' experiences in science class and their science learning. Alexis Patterson Williams, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Patterson's research lies at the intersection of equity studies, social psychology, and science education.

2Talanquer, V. 2019. Some insights into assessing chemical systems thinking, Journal of Chemical Education, 96: 2918 – 2925.

3Talanquer, V. and J. Pollard. 2010. Let's teach how we think instead of what we know, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 11: 74 – 83.

4Elmagraby, N. 2021. Trauma-Informed Pedagogy, Office of Online Education, Wake Forest University.[accessed 3/29/22:]

5Kelsey, E. 2020. Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis

6Kelsey, E."Hope" with Elin Kelsey: A part of the Existential Toolkit Discussion Series

7Atkinson, J. 2022. FacingIt: A Podcast About Love, Loss, and the Natural World

8Remington Doucette, S. 2021. Hope Is Not Optional: Managing Emotions in a Changing World I gave this talk at Bellevue College's Opening Day in Fall 2021. None of the ideas in the talk are mine and references to Kelsey's, Atkinson's, and others work are cited throughout. I heavily relied on Jennifer Atkinson's Facing It Podcast, using her exact words in places, because her words are powerful and I wanted to send a clear and powerful message to the employees of my college during its 2021-22 Opening Day event.

9Talanquer, V. and J. Pollard. 2017. Reforming a Large Foundational Course: Successes and Challenges, Journal of Chemical Education, 94: 1844 – 1851.

10Mahaffy, P.G. et al. 2019. Systems thinking for education about the molecular basis of sustainability, Nature Sustainability, 2: 362 – 370.

11Cooper, M. 2010. The Case for Reform of the Undergraduate General Chemistry Curriculum, Chemical Education Today, 87(3): 231 – 232.

12Mahaffy, P.G. at al. 2019. Can Chemistry Be a Central Science without Systems Thinking?, Journal of Chemical Education,96: 2679 – 2781.

13Matlin, S. et al. 2016. One-world chemistry and systems thinking, Nature Chemistry, 8: 393 – 398.

14Fisher, M.A. 2019. Systems Thinking and Educating the Heads, Hands, and Hearts of Chemistry Majors,Journal of Chemical Education,  96: 2715 – 2719.

Other resources not mentioned about that are specific to the situation in Mongolia and/or the pollutants (PM 2.5 and CO2) that are the focus of this case study:

"Is the Raw Coal Ban a Silver Bullet to Solving Air Pollution in Mongolia?" explores possible ways to address Mongolia's air pollution challenges.

New York Times Sunday Read: "This Isn't the California I Married" explores issues related to recurring wildfires in California.

New York Times: "Even Low Levels of Soot Can Be Deadly to Old People, Research Finds" describes the serious health effects of soot in the air.