Teach the Earth > Complex Systems > Workshop 2010 > Participants and Their Contributions > Jimm Myers

Tackling the Grand Challenges: the Role of Complexity in Student Preparation

James D. Myers, University of Wyoming

Current estimates of the world's human population places it at 6,681,111,786 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). At a minimum, each of these individuals must be fed, clothed and sheltered. However, many live beyond the minimum and require extensive resources to support every aspect of their lives. Supplying humankind with the resources it needs (i.e., food, water, shelter, energy) has dramatically altered the planet, including its many diverse ecosystems and global climate. This alteration has become so pervasive and extensive that some have suggested we have entered a new geologic epoch, i.e. the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002; Clark et al., 2004), as humans have become a dominant geologic force on the planet. Concurrent with supplying our needs through natural resource exploitation, humans have arguably had irreversible effects on other forms of life on the planet. Of particular note is the evolutionary arms race we now find ourselves engaged in centered on antibacterial resistance. Decades of use of antibacterial agents aimed at controlling and eliminating pathogenic microbes has led to the proliferation of "superbugs" through evolutionary processes. As our population continues to grow and as many people in third world countries strive for a higher standard of living, a significant number of global challenges lie ahead (e.g., food production, fresh water supply, energy needs, climate change, antibacterial resistance, invasive species, etc.). So encompassing are these challenges that they are often referred to as grand challenges.

Although a precise, universal definition is lacking, grand challenges share some common characteristics including: 1) social relevance; 2) significant economic impact; 3) solvability; 4) the need for multidisciplinary approaches; and 5) investment of significant of resources. In the last two decades, the concept of grand challenges has permeated the scientific, engineering, technological, medical and social science communities. A partial list of disciplines or research areas in which grand challenges have been identified include: environmental sciences (NRC, 2001), disaster mitigation (NRC, 2005a), engineering (NAE, 2008), the chemical industry (NRC, 2005b), Earth and environmental sciences (Zoback, 2001), Earth system science (Schellnhuber and Sahagian, 2002; Steffen et al., 2004) and global health (Varmus et al., 2003). In his presidential address to the AAAS, Omenn (2006) identified a series of grand challenges in science and engineering, multidisciplinary research and public understanding and decision-making. Many of the grand challenges cite energy, water, climate change, environmental impact, land use modification and resource utilization and depletion as particularly pressing issues facing humanity.

To deal with grand challenges effectively and equitably, our nation, as well as the entire global community, will need scientists/engineers, policy makers and citizens capable of viewing the grand challenges from multiple perspectives. Scientists/engineers will need to work collaboratively across disciples, both within and outside of science (e.g., economics, politics, social sciences). Policy makers must also be cognizant of the scientific and technological dimensions of the grand challenges as they craft national and international responses. Finally, successfully addressing grand challenges will not be possible without a scientifically literate global citizenry. They must be familiar with both natural and human systems and how they interact. These three constituencies (scientists/engineers, policy makers and the general public) represent the human capital needed to effectively explore and solve the grand challenges facing humankind and it is our task, as educators, to prepare them for this challenge.

By their very nature, grand challenges represent the intersection of natural and human systems, which are characterized by varying degrees of complexity. Preparing our students to address the grand challenges, whatever their future role may be, requires introducing them to a variety of systems and the complexity that characterizes these systems. They must understand the basic concepts of natural systems, e.g. energy cycle, carbon cycle, the atmosphere, soil systems, water cycle, etc. At the same time, they need to be able to work with the complexities inherent in human systems. Thus, they need to know the external costs of using fossil fuels and how governmental policy and economic models may be crafted to offset these impacts. The problem is to introduce enough complexity so that students become adapt at working with uncertainty, ambiguity and randomness, but do not become discouraged by the magnitude of the issues we face.

Energy: A Grand Challenge Example
Energy is arguably one of the most pressing of the grand challenges facing humankind. It is tied to: water (both for energy production and water as a resource itself); mineral resource utilization (mining is an especially energy intensive activity); climate change; and social and human development. The associated concerns and challenges are many, complex and multifaceted. They vary spatially (local to region to national to international) as well as temporally (short-term measured in days to weeks through long-term). These issues are further complicated in that they are not isolated by are closely interrelated.

Given the complex nature of the energy grand challenge, any solution must be multifaceted as well. Historically, energy issues have been "solved" by considering energy science (Where should we explore for oil?), technology (What can/cannot be done with current engineering systems?) and economics (Excluding externalities, is it cost effective?) [Fig. 1]. Unfortunately, countless historical examples show that "solutions" based on these perspectives have not always been the most just and equitable. Increasingly, we have come to realize that more sustainable, equitable and effective energy systems must be designed and constructed with input from many additional perspectives, e.g. energy context, environment, social institutions, culture, politics, etc., as well as different constituencies, i.e. multiple stakeholders, NGOs, citizens, companies, etc.

The economics, energy context, environmental, social and other perspectives of energy solutions are determined by social context, i.e. the setting or location of the energy issue (Fig. 1). Clearly, where an energy resource is found has significant impact on the human systems that will be necessary to produced, process and distribute the resource as well as the existing human institutions. These, in turn, will have different implications for environmental or social impacts. To illustrate, consider the case of oil and gas production in Norway and Nigeria. In Norway, the discovery of the North Sea oil and gas fields has been an economic boon. Part of the resultant wealth has been used to guard the natural environment and reinforce and grow social and political institutions. It has been widely shared throughout the population and a portion has even been set aside for future generations. Few would argue against the overall benefit of hydrocarbon production in this nation. Conversely, Nigeria's hydrocarbon reserves have had a much less positive impact. They have resulted in widespread corruption, an uneven distribution of wealth, enhanced conflict between regions and ethnic and religious groups as well as severe environmental damage – often on a massive scale (Hammer, 1996).

The multifaceted nature of the energy grand challenge can be illustrated symbolically using a simple functional relationship:

Myers essay Complex Systems 2010 Fig 1 Fig. 1: Graphical representation of the energy grand challenge solution function.

By displaying the energy grand challenge symbolically, it is easier to demonstrate the complex nature of the topic, the many dimensions that must be addressed and the interconnectedness of these dimensions. Similar functions can be written for virtually any of the important global grand challenges.

These grand challenge solution functions visually demonstrate the formidable task an educator faces when preparing his/her students for the grand challenges they will face during their lifetimes. Given the repeated and varied intersections of human and natural systems the grand challenges entail, it is clear that complexity (in its many forms) is something students must be able to deal with effectively if just, equitable and sustainable solutions are to be found and, even more important, implemented in a timely manner. Historically, there are many examples of scientifically-grounded societal issues that have been adversely affected by the general public's inability to effectively deal with complex

Issue s. Health concerns about silicone breast implants, the purported connection between vaccines and autism and the health impacts of EM (electromagnetic fields) fields are examples of scientifically-grounded issues that an uninformed public has been influenced counterproductively by activitist interest groups. The latter example cost the United States an estimated $25 billion before the issue was finally put to rest (Pollack, 2003). Likewise the debilitating debate about an issue that employs the public's lack of understanding of science and how science operates, e.g. climate change, can delay actions for solving a grand challenge thereby making subsequent solutions more difficult and often more expensive. For example, in 2004 Pacala and Scolow (2004) estimated that seven carbon wedges would be required to limit doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050. Yet, the U.S. public's reluctance to accept proposed climate change legislation means that just six years later an additional wedge will be necessary to prevent a doubling of pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels.

Clearly, educators must do a better job of preparing our students to handle the real and complex issues and systems that populate the real world. Toward that end, I have introduced two fundamental changes to my teaching strategies. They are: 1) the development and implementation of a new course design paradigm (L(SC)2); and 2) the creation of a new type of case study that emphasizes investigating real world issues from multiple perspectives (Myers and Massey, 2006, 2008).

Restructuring the Science Course: the L(SC)2 Paradigm
Clearly, preparing our students for the challenges of the grand challenges, whether as scientist/engineer, policy maker or citizen, requires a different pedagogical model than what is used for most traditional science courses. Not only must this model address student mis/pre/naive conceptions, it must also teach a skill set that is often poorly addressed in the traditional lecture-based course. This skill set must include: mastery of scientific literacy; ability to think critically and solve complex, ill-defined, and open-ended problems; proficiency with a specialized set of expertise (fundamental, technical and citizenship literacies); capacity to appreciate multiple and often competing perspectives; and ability to handle effectively complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, i.e. important attributes of all human and natural systems. Only with such a skill set will students be able to make sense of the complex natural and human systems that will be encountered when dealing with a grand challenge.

Literacies and Scientific Content in Social Context, L(SC)2 offers an alternative approach to science education by linking the physical sciences to the social sciences and humanities. The course format is expressly designed to address two implicit, but erroneous, assumptions common among gen ed science instructors: 1) students are proficient enough in literacies (skills) to handle effectively the quantitative aspects of science courses; and 2) students can readily apply the scientific knowledge they learn to societal issues outside the classroom (Myers and Massey, 2006). L(SC)2 addresses scientific literacy while promoting mastery of fundamental qualitative and quantitative skills, as well as the habits of mind necessary for active civic engagement. In putting science in social context, the L(SC)2 paradigm redefines and expands the concept of the interdisciplinary course (Bennett, Lubben and Hogarth 2007). These courses also use a variety of educational tools (active problem-based learning, collaborative work, peer instruction, oral and written presentations, role playing, and conflict resolution strategies) to create an effective learning environment (Schneider and Shiffrin 1985; Anderson 1982; Lesgold et al. 1988).

In L(SC)2 courses, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students learn that although there may be a technically or scientifically optimal solution to a problem, it must be responsive to a society's institutional, cultural and normative parameters before it can be implemented responsibly. Conversely, students majoring in the social sciences or humanities learn how solutions to societal problems must be scientifically valid and technologically feasible to be successful. Without scientific understanding, their proposals may lack legitimacy and may be discounted as unrealistic and ineffectual. Business majors discover that their economic models are limited by scientific and technological constraints and must take into account many difficult-to-quantify social and political costs, i.e. externalities. At the same time, interaction of STEM and non-STEM students in L(SC)2 courses encourage discussion among students across disciplinary boundaries and prepares them for professional and civic settings where they will work with experts outside their own area of specialization.

Though instructors expect students to integrate into other courses the scientific content they learn in their introductory science courses, we have found that most students rarely make connections between courses, even within the same discipline. We often assume that an enthusiastic and socially engaged instructor will inspire students, as citizens, to recognize the importance of applying integrated scientific knowledge to their own lives as well as a variety of issues of social importance. Again, our assumption is usually wrong. Students need to learn the skills of engagement and practice these in a context that makes clear the relevance of natural and social science understandings. Thus, L(SC)2 courses explicitly teach the citizenship literacies, a set of skills necessary to apply scientific understanding and knowledge to a variety of complex societal problems. Specifically, the citizenship literacies consist of three classes: critical thinking; understanding social context and informed engagement. The addition of citizenship literacies produces a complete toolbox that an informed citizen can use to apply scientific fundamentals to energy and resource issues in a systematic, logical and informed manner. It allows the individual to create a defensible position and to present that position to others in an effective manner. Simultaneously, the citizen toolbox allows one to understand the positions of other on an issue. In this manner, it will hopefully facilitate achieving common ground on contentious issues.

Preparing UW Students for the Grand Challenges: Cases
Dealing with the grand challenges will require the highest levels of problem solving and critical thinking, i.e. comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. A proven way of developing higher-order thinking skills, while providing practice with messy, real-life problems is through case studies (Herreid, 1994, 1997a, b). Case studies (or cases) are real or simulated stories or situations in which a central character faces a complex, illdefined problem or dilemma. Based on the story, students must devise a solution(s) to the problem and identify the consequences of their solution(s). In this manner, cases build student confidence in dealing with the ill-formed and difficult problems of life as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Because of their pedagogical benefits, case studies are the centerpiece of the laboratory in my classes where they have replaced traditional paper and pencil exercises (Myers and Massey, 2006, 2008). Unlike most case studies (Herreid, 1994; 1997a; 1998), these cases place students in a variety of professional roles in organizations dealing with resource issues; e.g. an international oil company, an environmental NGO, a multinational mining company, or a miner's labor union. Students are assigned tasks these organizations routinely perform: e.g. evaluating a hydrocarbon reservoir's economic potential; prospecting for gold deposits; or establishing a labor union's negotiating position. To provide each case with relevancy and immediacy, they are set in social contexts (local, regional, national or international), which the student should recognize from the media, e.g. oil production in Nigeria, copper mining in Peru, burning coal in China, etc. (Myers and Massey, 2006, 2008). Each case study consists of three components focused on a different perspective. These include geology, economics and social impact. The case studies have proven useful in introducing students to the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity typically associated with these issues. A list of the energy cases and their components is provided in the table below.

Throughout the 21st century, humankind will be faced with a multitude of grand challenges. These challenges all involve the intersection of many natural and human systems and are characterized by varying levels of complexity. Unfortunately, many surveys suggest the U.S. public is ill-prepared to deal effectively with the complexities and subtleties of these issues and systems. Progress on justly, equitably and sustainably solving the grand challenges requires better preparing our students to deal with the complexities of both human and natural systems. In addition, we must encourage our students to value to need for multiple, competing perspectives in achieving consensus.


  • Bennett, J., F. Lubben and S. Hogarth, 2007, Bringing science to life: a synthesis of research evidence on the effects of context-based and STS approaches to science teaching: Science Education, vol. 91, pp. 347-370.
  • Clark, W.C., P.J. Crutzen and H.J. Schellnhuber, 2004. Science for Global Sustainability: in Schellnhuber, H.J., P.J. Crutzen, W.C. Clark, M. Claussen and H. Held (eds.), 2004.
  • Earth Systems Analysis for Sustainability: Dahlem Workshop Reports, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 1-28.
  • Crutzen, P.J., 2002. The Anthropocene: Geology of mankind: Nature, vol. 415, pp. 23.
  • Hammer, J., 1996, Nigeria Crude – A Hanged Man and an Oil-fouled landscape: Harper's Magazine, June, pp. 58-70.
  • Herreid, C.F., 1994, Case studies in science – A novel method of science education: Journal of College Science Teaching, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 221-229.
  • Herreid, C.F., 1997a, What is a case?: Journal of College Science Teaching, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 92-94.
  • Herreid, C.F., 1997b, What makes a good case?: Journal of College Science Teaching, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 163-165.
  • Myers, J.D., and G. Massey, 2006, Teaching Global Citizenship Using Case Studies: A New Interdisciplinary and Integrated Template: Geol. Soc. Am. Abstracts with Programs, vol. 38, no. 7, p. 495.
  • Myers, J.D., and G. Massey, 2008, Earth Resources: What's Sociology Got to Do with It?: in Hartman, H. (ed.), Integrating the Sciences and Society: Challenges, Practices, and Potentials, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, vol. 16, pp. 76-98.
  • National Academy of Engineering, 2008. Grand Challenges for Engineering, 56 pp. (September, 2009)
  • National Research Council, 2001. Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences: National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 106 pp. (September, 2009)
  • National Research Council, 2005a. Creating a Disaster Resilient America: Grand Challenges in Science and Technology: National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 19 pp.
  • National Research Council, 2005b. Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs: National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 206 pp. (September, 2009)
  • Omenn, G.S., 2006, Grand challenges and great opportunities in science, technology, and public policy: Scinece, vol. 314, pp. 1696-1704.
  • Pacala, S., and R. Scolow, 2004, Stabilization Wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies: Science, vol. 305, pp. 968-972.
  • Pollack, H.N., 2003, Uncertain Science...Uncertain World: Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 243 pp.
  • Schellnhuber, H.J., and D. Sahagian, 2002. The twenty-three GAIM questions: Global Change News., vol. 29, 20-21.
  • Steffen, W., A. Sanderson, P.D. Tyson et al. (eds.), 2004. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure: The IGBP Book Series, Springer, Berlin.
  • Varmus, H., R. Klausner, E.Zerhouni, T. Acharya, A. S. Daar, and P. A. Singer, 2003. Grand Challenges in Global Health: Science 302: 398.
  • Zoback, M.L., 2001. Grand Challenges in Earth and environmental sciences: Science, stewardship, and service for the twenty-first century: GSA Today, December, pp. 41-47.

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