Sustainable Chemistry

Case study author: Dr Katherine Haxton

School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Faculty of Natural Sciences

CDF Framework: Authentic Assessment, Global Perspectives

Project Summary

In 2013 we undertook to develop a module that placed chemistry in the social, political and economic context of 'the real world' with a heavy emphasis on environmental sustainability, and a global perspective.

The course content covers a range of topics from e-Waste through to water security and explores some of the underlying chemistry alongside the implications to humanity. We step away from the lab bench to place chemistry in the global context and consider how people's lives are impacted by chemistry and chemical processes in different ways around the world. Within that, we wished to give students the flexibility to research topics of specific interest to them, and select topics related to their cultural backgrounds.

In our assessments, we emphasise the development of skills that will support our students throughout their degree such as finding and critiquing information, communicating ideas effectively both by writing for specialist audiences and by producing presentations, and by a mixture of working individually, and in formal and informal small groups. Authentic assessment opportunities provided in the form of written assignments for specified audiences, mimicking the range of roles professional chemists may occupy: a magazine article for pre-university chemistry students, a technical briefing note, a short news item on a scientific paper.

In 2014/15, and 2015/16 we were able to deliver an online version of the module to students at Nanjing XiaouZhoung university and as part of that, we synchronised the in-person delivery at Keele with the online delivery and created an 'international group work' assignment. Students worked in small groups to learn about sustainability in one another's culture and produced a short report.

Chemistry is simultaneously highly practical and highly conceptual as a discipline. This module was designed to address the need to enable students to engage with the discipline in a real-world and global context, and also to ensure that sustainability was embedded into the chemistry curriculum. The assessment structures of chemistry are frequently restricted to unseen exams, laboratory reports/notebooks, and presentation. This module, designed deliberately without an exam, provides opportunities to communicate chemistry in an authentic and professionally relevant way for specified audiences.

The module has received good feedback throughout its 7 years of operation with students appreciating the chance to debate and engage with important issues. Many students like the opportunity to develop their knowledge of sustainability and many have continued this engagement for the remainder of their degree through the formal and informal opportunities available at Keele, and on into their future careers.

The module has been presented at several conferences on sustainability education or chemistry/science education including HE STEM (Advance HE, January 2020), Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education conference in August 2019 (oral presentation on module) and August 2016 (poster presentation on international group work, and earlier in it's development as part of Keele's engagement with the sustainability change academy.

The International Group work assignment has been published (Haxton and Darton, 2019, Available at: and a second publication with the approach to the module is in preparation. The module was featured in the NUS's AtoZ of sustainability (available at:

This module serves as an example of a standalone module that addresses globalization, sustainability, and broadens the skills of students through authentic assessments. Those principles and the willingness to provide opportunity for students to place their conceptual knowledge in relevant contexts to their future are broadly transferrable.