Discover how one school reorganised their curriculum to focus on sustainability, with great results

Various items chemistry lab equipment, wind turbines, the climate and molecules.

Source: © Vladimir Vihrev/Shutterstock

For the sake of our students, and the planet, we need to ensure sustainability is firmly embedded in the chemistry curriculum

At the school where I teach, we start the GCSE course in January of year 9 and cover the topics atomic structure (C1), periodic table (C2) and structure and bonding (C3) by the end of the academic year. So, as we planned the post-lockdown return to school for year 10 that autumn, it didn’t feel that topic C4 on quantity (moles) would be accessible for a cohort who had spent months learning online.

For safety reasons, we needed to minimise practical work initially, while ensuring we filled in the missing learning gaps. These needs inadvertently paved the way for a focus on sustainability.

Getting started

Atmosphere seemed like an ideal starting point. The ideas are relatively accessible, the history of the Earth’s atmosphere is a great story, there is an opportunity to reteach covalent bonding and practical work is minimal.

We also noticed that several other units naturally link to environmental chemistry or sustainability: organic chemistry (C9), resources (C12), metals (part of C5) which leads on to electrolysis (C6) and chemical analysis (C10). Taken together, these topics cover the use and extraction of the major resources, the tools for assessing impact and some insights into how we can measure substances in the environment.

The remaining units – quantity (C4), acids (part of C5), energy in reactions (C7) and rates (C8) – then group nicely into a reactions theme for year 11, with the opportunity to reinforce the moles concept throughout those units.

Mapping concepts

Chemistry has some fundamental concepts but there is scope for different sequences of topics. The teaching order proposed by Best Evidence in Science Teaching (BEST) is different to the AQA order, which also differs from Edexcel (see table).

Bonding crops up in most of the proposed year 10 topics, which enables us to reteach this fundamental topic throughout the year, and provides ample opportunity to practise word and symbol equations.

The reactions theme in year 11, which builds on the use of equations in year 10, considers how reactions happen. There is scope to revisit earlier reactions, such as formation of nitrogen dioxides when considering activation energy, and to apply the concept of moles throughout.

The concepts in this latter sequence are more abstract but can be grounded by reference to knowledge built during year 10.

Year and themeUnitNotes and concepts

Year 9


Chemical entities

C1 atomic structure

Establish basic chemical concepts to be revisited in later units.

C2 periodic table

C3 structure and bonding

Year 10


Environmental chemistry and sustainability

C11 atmosphere

Strong start with the history of the Earth and how we are changing it. Opportunity to reteach simple covalent bonding.

C9 hydrocarbons

Opportunity to revisit formation of crude oil and combustion from atmosphere topic, and simple covalent bonding and intermolecular forces as applied to fractional distillation.

C12 resources

Could move phytomining/bioleaching into the metals unit with metal extraction (also taught in KS3).

C5a metals

Opportunity to revisit metallic and ionic bonding. Link to metal recycling in C12, revisit life cycle analysis (LCA) and link to electronics in daily life.

C6 electrolysis

Opportunity to revisit ionic bonding and chemical formulas.

C10 chemical analysis

Link to testing for substances in the environment.

Year 11


Chemical reactions

C4 quantity

Opportunity to revisit atomic structure, conservation of mass and equations.

C5b acids and salts

Opportunity to revisit ionic bonding in salts and apply C4 concepts.

C7 energy in reactions

Opportunity to revisit covalent bonding. Can use the pollutant forming / fuel burning equations from C11 as example reactions.

C8 rate and extent of chemical reactions

Can link back to sustainability via Haber process, can link SO2 production in thiosulfate experiment back to atmosphere. Catalysis link to green chemistry.

Making it happen

Once we had developed a logical order for topics, we didn’t see any major conceptual stumbling blocks so the ‘activation energy’ to implement the change was low. We retained each unit as a block, so most existing teaching sequences remained unchanged except for revisiting prior topics and bonding.

Where possible, we included careers information to help students see how these ideas might be used in their futures. We showcased Black climate activists during Black History Month.

Teachers have noticed that students spot links between units and feel that there is new coherence to the course

Producing exams has been challenging because the teaching order means that we sometimes need to revise past papers to be used mid-year. It would be better to teach metal extraction (also covered in KS3) before bioleaching and phytomining but, otherwise, our approach has worked well. There haven’t been any moments where a foundational concept was missing in the current topic.


It’s difficult to measure the impact of our changes in terms of progress because the current cohorts were so disrupted because of the pandemic. Teachers have noticed that students spot links between units and feel that there is new coherence to the course.

The real-world nature of the year 10 topics is engaging and the opportunity to revisit bonding in each unit has really helped with conceptual understanding. There is a greater sense of narrative throughout the curriculum with the natural progression between the units, building expertise in students.

The year 11 students unanimously agreed with the grouping of environmental subjects. Many cited atmosphere as their favourite topic; it was the ‘easiest to grasp’ and ‘good to learn, given current issues’ and a lot of the content was referenced again later, ‘so it got easier’. They said that the teaching order had felt logical and natural to them ‘so they can make links’.

Looking ahead

There is potential to further embed sustainability throughout year 10 and into year 11. I would start the year 10 course with a strong lesson on the importance of sustainability and the role of chemistry, including an overview of the units of the year and linking to sustainability-related jobs.

With no time lost to Covid-19, I would hope for more time to include enrichment lessons; providing careers information, climate solutions, ‘meet a scientist’ events and embedding EiC’s 14 ways to teach sustainability in chemistry series.

There could be tie-in with our PSHE planning and school council actions on sustainability, with year 10 positioned as ‘sustainability experts’, to achieve school-wide impacts and provide leadership opportunities for other students. All these changes will take time, but I believe we can help our students have a clear sense of how studying chemistry can help us meet global challenges and how they can contribute.