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 > Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson, the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College


Q: Why are you late to class?

A: I am late because:

a) My child was sick and I had to call my grandmother to watch her; or
b) The border bridge was backed up again.
c) All of the above.

I start with this question/answer set to communicate a bit of context around the unique University community in which I live and conduct my work. The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College is 93% Hispanic and is situated on the US-Mexico border at the southern tip of Texas. My students live in the poorest region in the United States by several census measures, including per capita income. I can have a bistek taco in Mexico in less than 10 minutes from my office door and 10-15% of my students walk or drive across the international border bridge to class every morning.

In this context, we as professors face many challenges. Students enter university (openenrollment) with little math or science training from the local high schools. They are often first-in-family college attendees, and they have immense commitments at home. Despite this, ironically, I have found that the 'intuitive' fashion of linking together ideas and concepts through complex system models (presented in a simple fashion) comes more naturally than at other institutions where I have taught – perhaps because their lives are so complex.

Every semester, I teach a lower-level class and lab called 'Earth Science' as well as an upper-level course (we don't have a graduate program). In the lower-level class, I have mostly non-science majors taking the course as a required program and this is where I currently apply systems-learning techniques for the most part. This class is comprised of students that do not like science in general (that is, if they are interested enough to care). By the end of the class, my two goals for them are: (i) to appreciate and enjoy science; and (ii) to see the world more systemically through science. On point (ii), I utilize mind (concept) maps at the start of each class to both link together the points in the lecture while linking into other key systems. The most naturally applicable systems concept that I teach is plate tectonics linked in to various phenomena (earthquakes, etc).

Key questions I hope to answer in this workshop include:

a) What are examples of best practices for approaching systems thinking within a poor, minority, first-generation college environment?
b) How can I develop inter-lecture content into a holistic system?
c) What are some case study best practices for communicating complex systems?
d) Who can I team up with to share/further develop my complex systems teaching experiences as we move forward?

The other participant essays that I have reviewed indicate a rich pool of colleagues at this workshop – I have been inspired. I look forward to the experience and the opportunity to learn from others and from the organizers so that I can bring these skills back to the educators and students of our college community in South Texas.


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