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Teaching Systems Thinking in the Earth Sciences

Vincent Devlahovich, Department of Geology, College of the Canyons

I feel that Earth Sciences are one of the best possible settings to teach about complex systems. This is because at the core of the Earth Sciences are several complex systems whose connections from an incredible web of scientific complexity which is reflected in our beautiful Earth. I teach various sections of Earth Science each semester, some field based, some online, and some in the classroom setting. This allows me much creative freedom in exploring different pedagogical approaches in which to teach the course content. For the last several years I have used a significant amount of systems thinking in the course delivery, with a surprising amount of student success.

Complex systems thinking, as it relates to the Earth Sciences, involve non-linear, circular relationships in the "spheres": atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere, which operate independently, but affect each other in feedback and leverage mechanisms. In other words, complex and distant events in space and time are connected within a complex larger pattern. Each sphere influences the others, but in a way that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the big "system" by contemplating the whole, not by any individual part of the systems. The connections or relationships are the most important part of the system, from the subatomic level all the way to the macro. The larger system moves together as living organism, where chaos and change operate to produce systematic order. Amazingly, the sub-systems themselves organize together to form a powerful self-organizing whole.

This type of thinking is not often taught in higher education, and I believe that it should be, because it not only applies to geosciences systems, but also applies to human relationships and business. For too long we have espoused a linear, cause and effect relationship to understanding natural phenomenon, which is unfortunately left over from the 18th century and the scientific revolution. Many concepts do not have clear lines of cause and effect, but instead operate in circular patterns involving feedback and leverage between concepts that we treat as separate, but in actuality are not separate, but connected.

There is a wholeness that can be perceived in looking at nature as a complex system. This is the way I feel that the Earth Sciences need to be taught in the 21st century.


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