Fighting Poverty in Chemistry Class | Ideas

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1: Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere may seem like an admirable goal to many chemistry teachers but somewhat disconnected from the content we teach. Poverty and inequalities, are

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1: Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere may seem like an admirable goal to many chemistry teachers but somewhat disconnected from the content we teach. Poverty and inequalities, are they not economic and sociological concepts and debates?

I argue that there are three main reasons why we need to get comfortable talking about poverty in chemistry classes:

  1. chemical research and innovation can be a tool to end global poverty;
  2. chemistry degrees help reduce inequalities; and,
  3. chemistry has contributed to global poverty in ways that should be critically examined.
The logo of the Sustainable Development Goals

This article is part of the Sustainability in Chemistry series, developed to help you integrate the UN Sustainable Development Goals in your chemistry education. It supports Goal 1: end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Put it in context

First, chemistry can and should play an important role in the fight to end global poverty. It also has the potential to mediate the damaging effects of poverty. Help students explore the connections between the content they are learning and the challenges faced by those living in poverty, including some of the students in our classes. This will allow them to leverage their chemistry knowledge in meaningful and potentially transformational ways and / or encourage them to study chemistry as part of their pursuit and advocacy for local and global distributive justice.

Download this

A critical reflection and research activity, for the 16-18 age group

Use this resource to reflect on scientific and societal perspectives on drugs and their development. The download includes teacher’s notes and two tasks covering free writing and research, followed by a group discussion.

Download the Aspirin and Other Medicines resource from the Education in Chemistry website:

Second, the opportunities for progression and success in chemistry are strongly correlated with Socioeconomic status UK. For example, students from privileged backgrounds are more likely to study the triple science and are much more likely to study chemistry beyond GCSE than those in relative poverty. At the same time, chemistry is a “gatekeeper” for entry into the highly paid professions in medicine, science and technology. This combination of layered and babysitting opportunities means that chemistry education plays a role in perpetuating inequalities. The educational approach of scientific capital calls this control into question.

Finally, chemistry has played an important role in the construction and maintenance of global inequalities and therefore of poverty. The harmful narrative that science is a ‘colonial gift‘- technological progress, the commodification of resources, the theft of knowledge and the deficit framing of indigenous modes of knowledge imposed on colonized peoples – combine learning chemistry with colonization and the extraction of wealth from communities and nations that remain economically poor. Therefore, as chemistry teachers teaching sustainable development and poverty eradication, we need to share with students the ways in which chemistry has been complicit in oppression.

Put it into practice

Explore the chemistry of local and global challenges that are concentrated in poor communities. For example, the Flint water crisis allows to study the corrosion and the properties of chlorine at 14-16 and the equilibria at 16-18. Have students research the science behind the crisis and write a series of chemical equations to show the various competing equilibria. Students can also work in groups to innovate solutions that draw on their chemical and social knowledge.

Enrich your study by linking to other SDGs also covered in this series, such as 13: climate change or 2: food security, at age 14-16 by debating which groups bear the responsibility, which groups suffer the effects and what we should do about it. To integrate citizen science projects in your program or offer opportunities in extracurricular science clubs.

Use the science capital pedagogical approach to recognize that all communities, including communities experiencing poverty, rely on scientific knowledge related to the curriculum. For example, chemical knowledge of cooking (solubility 14-16, see also these cooking chemistry resources), cleaning (16-18 acids and bases), dyeing (16-18 intermolecular forces, pH, balances ) and agriculture (14-18 acids and bases, fertilizers) present in the classroom and the local community can enrich, extend and qualify the chemistry program of all students. This asset-based pedagogy validates and builds the scientific identities of socio-economically disadvantaged students, so that they can see science as “for people like me”.

One way the legacy of colonization intersects with the chemistry program is organic synthesis, particularly aspirin. Without indigenous medical knowledge, the world’s pharmaceutical companies might not produce aspirin for all of us. Download the Scaffolding Resource, designed to accompany the 16-18 Hands-on Aspirin Synthesis Exercises, and use it to help students research and express their ideas about the power and limitations of chemistry in cause and solving local and global poverty.

School chemistry laboratories are not politically neutral spaces, on the contrary ‘power is always present in learning contexts‘and, as chemistry teachers, we can use our power to challenge and resist cycles of poverty within our local communities and beyond.

Next week’s article looks at Goals 4: Quality Education, 5: Gender Equality, and 10: Reducing Inequalities. Check out the series so far.