On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences
Carleton College
Cutting Edge > Complex Systems > Workshop 2010 > Participants and Their Contributions > Ann Linsley
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Integrated GeoScience in High School

Ann Linsley, Bellaire High School

I teach two integrated geo‐science programs that I developed around the two sets of curricula that my students have to master to be successful on college placement exams. I teach 11th and 12th grades in the International Baccalaureate diploma program and in the Advanced Placement program at Bellaire High School in the Houston School District. Currently, we are the only school in the district that runs these programs together. The courses became integrated studies as a result of the need to blend the curriculum demands of both programs into one course. I designed an advanced IB/AP Geography program 15 years ago and the IB/AP Environmental Science course 4 years ago. Both courses are integrated within and between each other. Almost half of the curriculum of both courses overlaps in content areas but the approach is either from the human response to the physical environment and spatial perspectives or from the environmental action and response and anthropogenic perspective. The students who take the classes concurrently or consecutively seem to have the best understanding of the intricate nature of complex systems and are quicker to draw upon those knowledge bases in either course. Both of my courses are survey courses that have significant depth within each of the topics of study. However, it is the complexity of the interrelationships between these topic areas that is ultimately the greatest challenge, as it requires application skills and analytical assessment and not just simple memorization.

At the high school level the challenges to teaching or even student understanding of complex systems has multiple influences that range from the state school board personal agendas, limitations on text publishers to insufficient teacher preparations. Fortunately, both of my courses receive little attention since neither has an approved state textbook and the curriculum that guides them are driven by national programs. The challenges that I see in my students are two‐fold. First, they do not come to me with a basic content understanding of earth science or geography topics that should have been covered in earlier grade levels as required by state objectives. Secondly, students fail to apply the learned content that they may have had to real‐world situations. As events occur in the lithosphere, atmosphere, or hydrosphere they fail to see the implications or connections of those incidences to the human world or the biosphere in general. In particular, the relationship to global economics and the impact on sustainable resource practices is frequently misunderstood due to the influence of development levels. The inability to apply the content to real‐world analysis creates a greater challenge to understanding the intricate networks of complex systems. However, recent events have provided excellent opportunities to illustrate the linkages between geologic systems, human development and response systems.

Approaching these dynamic challenges requires a variety of methods. I utilize models to illustrate the feedback loops inherent to the disruption or success of a complex system, (e.g. regional climatic patterns, coastal processes, population controls). Addressing the "what if" mode of inquiry stimulates application thinking as well as overly creative responses, however the students are evaluating changes to a particular system and what potentially happens once the threshold is reached. I use simulated labs where the answers can only be obtained through actually carrying out the experiment. In these experiments, the initial inquiry as to what the students think will happen and the post evaluation confirming or denying what did happen is crucial to understanding the concept and how it impacts a system at a different level of scale. Ultimately, I have found that fieldwork in the natural environment is one of the best ways to understand the operation and interrelated nature of complex systems. My geography and environmental science students conduct three major field investigations during the course of the year, which cover multiple systems in a cause and effect relationship. To understand the relationship between historical geology, geomorphology, climatic change, and biology, I lead them through an intensive multi‐systems study in the Yellowstone region. In this area we conduct water quality analysis in multiple areas, measure conditions for the survival of thermophiles, investigate rock types, processes and formations, observe the impact of glacial periods on the landscape and evaluate the ecological niches of predator animals. To better understand coastal systems and the role of humans in the coastal environment we have been collecting data from shoreline changes for the past 15 years on Galveston Island. This data is compared to Lidar measurement changes conducted by government agencies. The students look at change over time to evaluate reasons from natural occurrences to human induced for possible answers. Lastly, fieldwork in the urban area leads to investigation of economic induced changes on the cultural landscape. All of these are attempts to develop an understanding of the many components of a functioning system and their relationships to other systems in a real‐world setting.

The challenge of teaching a systems approach in an integrated geo‐science course requires a pedagogical change to effectively evaluate the operational causes, potential threshold influences and functionality of the system.


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