Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences
"Complex systems are those with many strongly interdependent variables. This excludes systems with only a few effective variables, the kind we meet in elementary dynamics. It also excludes systems with many independent variables; we learn how to deal with them in elementary statistical mechanics. Complexity appears where coupling is important, but doesn't freeze out most degrees of freedom." (Boccara, 2004)
Projected changes (based on 10 IPCC AR-4 GCM models run with the SRES- A1B forcing scenario) in the spatial distribution and integrated annual area of optimal polar bear habitat. Base map shows the cumulative number of months per decade where optimal polar bear habitat was either lost (red) or gained (blue) from 2001–2010 to 2041–2050. Offshore gray shading denotes areas where optimal habitat was absent in both periods. Insets show the average annual (12 months) cumulative area of optimal habitat (right y-axis, line plot) for four 10-year periods in the 21st century (x-axis midpoints), and their associated percent change in area (left y axis, histograms) relative to the first decade (2001–2010).
The study of complex systems in the geosciences encompasses a broad range of topics, including the interactions of the various "spheres" (atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere), cycles (e.g. the carbon cycle and the hydrologic cycle), feedback loops, and chaotic and fractal behavior within earth systems (such as coastlines, drainage networks, climate, and earthquakes). The dynamic, non-linear behavior inherent in complex systems poses particular challenges for teaching and learning. Yet teaching systems thinking is vitally important, as highlighted in Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems (more info) .
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Resources for Teaching About Complex Systems
- What constitutes a complex system? describes several defining characteristics of complex systems in detail, supplemented by several alternative definitions of complexity.
- The Earth and Mind blog has many posts related to systems thinking.
- There are many promising pedagogical approaches to teaching about complex systems, including
- Using computer models to teach complex systems,
- Combining an inquiry-based approach with multiple representations of complex systems, and
- Using a role-playing approach to coupled natural and human systems.
- Assessing student understanding of complex systems is challenging. It begins with formulating learning goals for your students, then choosing appropriate assessment tools for evaluating those goals.
- Teaching activities for the classroom and lab, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
- Courses with a focus on complex systems, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
- Assessments of student understanding of complex systems, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
- Visualizations: graphics, animations, and videos
- Recommended readings: a selected set of readings on teaching about complex systems, modeling complex systems, and complex systems research
- References: a broad collection of books, journal articles, and other references about complex systems in the geosciences or about teaching complex systems thinking
- Do you have a resource (teaching activity, course, visualization, reference, or other) to recommend? Please share a resource.
We also held a workshop at the fall AGU meeting in 2010 on Teaching About Complex Systems Using the STELLA Modeling Software. See the workshop program page for presentations and examples.