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Educating towards a circular economy

We asked experts in a variety of STEM disciplines about their area of work and what skills they consider the most important for IB science students to acquire. Here, Dr Mats Linder, Project Manager at the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shares his thoughts. 

Tell us about your area of work

Along a seemingly winding path, my previous work in theoretical chemistry and management consulting has led me to my current preoccupation with plastics project managing ‘moon-shot’ innovation for the New Plastics Economy Initiative. My work includes working with a broad range of experts to identify how to mobilize radical new innovations that could help accelerate the transition to a plastics economy built on circular economy principles. I’m realizing more and more that having a mixed experience from different disciplines is a huge asset.

Dr Mats Linder, Project Manager at the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Plastics may look dull but it is a fascinating and important subject. Beneath the smooth, shiny surface, plastics make up an immense diversity of different materials with countless functions. Imagining a world today without plastics is hard if not impossible – there are so many things that plastics do today. Yet, the nature of plastics means that they cause a number of environmental challenges. It is difficult to make the recycling economics work, so plastics have a high likelihood of ending up in the environment. They don’t break down in nature for hundreds of years and because of this, these materials can cause a lot of damage before they disappear.

The New Plastics Economy team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to mobilise momentum towards a new vision of a plastics economy, where plastic packaging is regarded a valuable resource and used as such, instead of—which is the case today—ending up as permanent waste after only one short use cycle.

plastics-2What is the most important skill that you think senior IB science students should have by the end of their studies?

Since the plastics subject is so complex, both from an economic and a materialistic perspective, it is very helpful to be able to draw on my various experiences as a chemist and a consultant. As I continue my own journey of learning, I’m more and more grateful for having studied mathematics and getting a solid understanding of engineering. But I also realise how limited the worldview of a traditionally educated engineer and scientist is, especially when it comes to understanding economics and market dynamics. In science, we tend to constrain the complexity of systems until we can discover an absolute truth. However, the world rarely works like that, and it was a bit of a shocker to realise that outside the ivory tower of science there is rarely a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but different opinions about almost everything. Similarly, it would be useful if more economists and businesses incorporated more scientific perspectives in their worldview.

My point is that many jobs today require us to be “T-shaped” – having a combination of breadth and a depth of skills and knowledge. Many challenges require a multidisciplinary response, considering science, but also understanding human behaviour and politics; economics, but also maths. As a senior science student, you should definitely be well-versed in mathematics, basic physical and chemical concepts such as thermodynamics, and in applying the scientific method. But you also need to understand basic economics and the behaviours of complex adaptive systems.

Does this mean students of today need to study harder and longer? Maybe, I don’t know. I do think there are more things we need to know and understand to be effective agents and learners today than 50 years ago. But we might also need to learn differently, engaging more in real-world problems and actively respond to the challenges businesses and societies are facing. In the process, we’d hopefully also be able to learn more effectively.


You will be taking part in the IB’s first Science Symposium, what is the key area of focus for your presentation?

My presentation will dive deeper into these arguments, using the lens of a circular economy and the special case of plastic packaging. I will discuss the important skill sets for science students who want to be part of creating an economy that works in the long-run, and importantly how to get equipped for perpetual learning.

In October 2016, we welcomed experts from a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to join us at our first IB Science Symposium. With expertise in areas like genetics, plastics and the circular economy, tackling complexity, and communications, discussions were broad and engaging. The symposium explored essential science skills and major themes in science education. Watch out for our student reporter’s account. How do you think the future of science education will look in the next 50 years?

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