Teach the Earth > Complex Systems > Teaching Activities > Systems Geobiology Powers of 10

Systems Geobiology Powers of 10

Bruce W. Fouke
Department of Geology, Department of Microbiology, Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

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This page first made public: Apr 19, 2010


Systems Geobiology is the study of complex interactions arising from the interplay of biological, geological, physical, chemical and even social systems across multiple spatial (microns to thousands of kilometers) and temporal (nanoseconds to eons) scales.

Systems Geobiology is distinct from Systems Biology and Biocomplexity in that these complex interactions are linked geological processes such a sediment deposition and mineral precipitation, thus allowing modern complex systems to be reconstructed from the ancient rock record.

Therefore, Systems Geobiology requires: (1) Tracking and prediction of organismal response to, and control of, environmental change utilizing the geological record. (2) Analysis of suites of fundamental physical, chemical and biological components within their geological and environmental context. (3) Linkage of biological processes with geological processes (i.e. sediment deposition, mineral precipitation, fluid hydrodynamics, etc.). (4) Integration across broad scales of time (nanoseconds to eons) and space (nanometers to light years).

This exercise allows students to systematically evaluate the spatial and temporal Powers of 10" scales across which it is necessary to conduct Systems Geobiology analyses.

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Undergraduate Course (Juniors and Seniors)
Graduate Course (M.Sc., Ph.D. and Postdocs)

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need to know the metric system for spatial and temporal measurements, as well as the numeric prefixes (yocto-, zepto-, atto-, femto-, pico-, nano-, micro-, milli-, kilo-, mega-, giga-, tera-, peta-, exa-, zetta, yotta-). Students also need to know the basic concepts of exponential notation, orders of magnitude differences and have seen the Powers of 10 movie.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is conducted in the second class. In the first class, a review is provided of: (1) the metric system for spatial and temporal measurements; (2) the numeric prefixes (yocto-, zepto-, atto-, femto-, pico-, nano-, micro-, milli-, kilo-, mega-, giga-, tera-, peta-, exa-, zetta, yotta-); (3) exponential notation; (4) orders of magnitude differences; and (5) Powers of 10 movie.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of this activity is to have students transition from an external theoretical understanding of the spatial and temporal scales over which integrative Systems Geobiology science is conducted, to a tangible systematically first hand experience with the scales required for conducting holistic integrative science.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The higher order thinking skill of this exercise is to be able to turn their "Powers of Observation" into a "Powers of 10" numerical breakdown and structuring of a complex environment.

Other skills goals for this activity

The primary goal is to utilize and practice their Socratic reasoning skills via observation and knowledge of spatial and temporal frameworks.

Description of the activity/assignment

The newly emerging field of Systems Geobiology requires linkage of biological processes with geological processes across broad scales of time (nanoseconds to eons) and space (nanometers to light years). Students are asked to specifically identify the scales of time and space across which Systems Geobiology research needs to be completed. They do this by making direct observations of a field photograph taken at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Students then translate 10 of their observations onto Powers of 10 charts. This is followed by a class discussion of their results on topics such as: What is missing? How will these analyses be synthesized across such broad scales?

Determining whether students have met the goals

The students evaluate the completeness of each other's observations and Powers of 10 formulation.

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