Why you need to get comfortable talking about poverty and inequality in the chemistry classroom

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Energise your students with these contexts and activities to tackle poverty using their chemistry learning

UN sustainable development goal 1: end poverty in all its forms everywhere, may seem like an admirable aim to many chemistry teachers but somewhat disconnected from the content we are teaching. Aren’t poverty and inequality economic and sociological concepts and debates?

I argue there are three key reasons we need to get comfortable talking about poverty in chemistry classrooms:

  1. chemical research and innovation can be a tool for ending global poverty;
  2. chemistry qualifications are instrumental in reducing inequality; and,
  3. chemistry has contributed to global poverty in ways that should be critically examined.
The Sustainable Development Goals logo

This article is part of the Sustainability in chemistry series, developed to help you integrate the UN’s sustainable development goals into your teaching of chemistry. It supports Goal 1: end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Put it in context

Firstly, chemistry can and should play a significant role in the battle to end global poverty. It also has the potential to mediate the harmful effects of poverty. Help students explore the links 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 empower them to leverage their chemical 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 thinking and research activity, for age range 16–18

Use this resource to reflect on the science and societal views surrounding drugs and their development. The download includes teacher notes and two tasks covering free writing and research, followed by group discussion. 

Download the aspirin and other drugs resource as MS Word or pdf.


Download the aspirin and other drugs resource from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/xxxxxxx

Secondly, opportunities for progression and success in chemistry are highly correlated with socioeconomic status in the UK. For example, students from privileged backgrounds are more likely to study triple science and are far more likely to study chemistry beyond GCSE than those in relative poverty. Concurrently, chemistry is a ‘gatekeeper’ for entry into highly paid professions in medicine, science and technology. This combination of stratified opportunity and gatekeeping means chemistry education plays a role in perpetuating inequality. The science capital teaching approach challenges this gatekeeping.

Finally, chemistry has played a significant role in the construction and maintenance of global inequality and hence, poverty. The harmful narrative that science is a ‘colonial gift’ – technological advances, commodification of resources, theft of knowledge and deficit framing of native ways of knowing imposed on colonised peoples – entangles chemistry learning with colonisation and the extraction of wealth from communities and nations which remain economically poor. Consequently, as chemistry teachers teaching sustainable development and the eradication of poverty we need to name, with students, the ways chemistry has been complicit in oppression.

Put it into practice

Explore the chemistry of local and global challenges which are concentrated in poor communities. For example, the Flint water crisis provides an opportunity to study corrosion and the properties of chlorine at 14–16 and equilibria at 16–18. Ask students to 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 which 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 14–16 by debating which groups bear responsibility, which groups experience the effects and what we should be doing about it. Incorporate citizen science projects into your curriculum or provide opportunities in extracurricular science clubs.

Use the science capital teaching approach to recognise that all communities, including communities in poverty, draw on scientific knowledge which links to the curriculum. For example, chemical knowledge of cooking (14–16 solubility, also see these kitchen chemistry resources), cleaning (16–18 acids and bases), dyeing (16–18 intermolecular forces, pH, equilibria) and farming (14–18 acids and bases, fertilisers) present within the class and local community can enrich, extend and nuance the chemistry curriculum for all students. This asset-based pedagogy validates and builds the science identities of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, so they can see science as ‘for people like me’.

Get more resources 

One way the legacy of colonisation intersects with the chemistry curriculum is in organic synthesis, particularly aspirin. Without indigenous medical knowledge, global pharmaceutical companies might not be producing aspirin for us all to buy. Download the scaffold resource, designed to sit alongside the 16–18 aspirin synthesis core practical, and use it to support students to research and articulate their ideas about the power and limitations of chemistry in causing and solving local and global poverty.

School chemistry laboratories are not politically neutral spaces, instead ‘power is ever 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.

 Check out the rest of the Sustainability in chemistry series.