Initial Publication Date: August 18, 2022

Teaching Systems Thinking Across the Geoscience Curriculum

Mastering systems thinking requires multiple exposures. As Manduca and Kastens (2012) write, "We should expect that students will require multiple opportunities to think about the complexity of earth systems. Their understanding will need to be built not within a single class but over the course of their study of Earth." To produce graduates who are proficient at systems thinking, we need to infuse it throughout our undergraduate curricula. Here are a handful of examples of how geoscience faculty have incorporated thinking about complex earth systems in their undergraduate courses.

Systems Thinking in Introductory-Level Courses

  • Climate Around the World provides students with an overview of regional climate variations around the world and promotes discussion of factors that create differences in climate around the world. This assignment provides an introduction to the complexities of the climate system by requiring each student to gather information about one region or country, then synthesize that with information provided by other students.
  • Poleward Heat Transport is a small-group exercise with maps of data about earth's energy balance.
  • In The Heat Is On: Understanding Local Climate Change, students draw conclusions about the extent to which multiple decades of temperature data about Phoenix suggest that a shift in local climate is taking place as opposed to exhibiting nothing more than natural variability.
  • Heat Transport in the Climate System stresses interpretation of data from a simple graph and helps students to integrate information on heat transport, ocean circulation and atmospheric circulation.
  • Water Wars: A Look at Gallatin Valley Water Controversies uses a virtual field trip to explore the science and policy of a ground water dispute in Gallatin Valley Montana. Students are asked to formulate an argument for or against the development of a nearby subdivision and to support that argument with evidence they gathered on the virtual field trip.
  • In Confirmation of the IPCC Prediction re: Increased Storminess, students assess whether the IPCC prediction of increased storminess as an outcome of global warming survives testing.
  • Teaching the Nitrogen Cycle and Human Health Interactions uses objects, pictures, and text in a matching game to define the nitrogen cycle and the environmental and human health impacts of nitrogen. The game can be used to associate useful and detrimental effects of the nitrogen cycle on the human and natural environment. Students write nitrogen cycle poetry as a method to emphasize concepts learned in the unit.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of complex systems teaching activities

Systems Thinking in Upper-Level Courses

  • Modeling Exsolution (and Perthite Formation) as an Example of Complex-System Behavior: Students use a physical model, computer simulation, examples from the natural world, visualizations, and overarching thought experiments to explore this phenomenon. Exsolution embodies attributes of a complex system by exhibiting self-similar features on many scales, and emergent, self-organizing and fractionating properties.
  • Sediments and the Global Carbon Cycle is a series of exercises designed to introduce undergraduate students to the role of sediments and sedimentary rocks in the global carbon cycle and the use of stable carbon isotopes to reconstruct ancient sedimentary environments.
  • Modeling the Oceanic Thermohaline Circulation with STELLA involves the construction of and then experimentation with a STELLA model of the thermohaline circulation in the north Atlantic. Based on a famous paper by Stommel (1961), this model exhibits two stable states or attractors. The dynamics of this system are relevant to understanding episodes of abrupt climate change such as the Younger Dryas.
  • Tracers in the Hydrologic Cycle: Students investigate biogeochemical transformations (nitrate, silica, pH and conductivity) of water as it moves through the hydrologic cycle. The resulting conceptual framework facilitates later use of tracers in evaluating runoff mechanisms and sources of stream flow.
  • Systems Geobiology Powers of 10 allows students to systematically evaluate the spatial and temporal "Powers of 10" scales across which it is necessary to conduct Systems Geobiology analyses.
  • Drainage Basins Field Lab explores the geomorphology of drainage basins in an active tectonic setting. It introduces basic concepts of drainage basin structure and landscape analysis using morphometric indices.
  • Using Wetlands to Teach Hydrogeology uses field exercises (surface-water, vadose-zone, and groundwater hydrology), in which students generate their own data throughout the semester, to teach hydrogeological concepts, techniques, and reasoning in the context of a wetland field site.
  • In The Boxing Day Tsunami, students map data from the National Geophysical Data Center and the United States Geological Survey on Google Earth and study visualizations in order to explore the causes and effects of the Tsunami of December 26, 2004. The data includes tsunami runup heights, advance of tsunami wave fronts, and photography. In addition, the students examine evidence regarding the Tsunami of 1700.
  • Modeling Daisyworld: Daisyworld is a classic model of complex feedbacks in a simple climate system; this activity guides students through the construction of a STELLA model that can be used to experiment with the system, exploring the somewhat surprising dynamics that arise from the interplay of positive and negative feedbacks between daisies and the temperature of their environment.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of complex systems teaching activities

Systems Thinking in Dedicated Courses

The courses below use a systems approach to teaching geoscience concepts. These courses range from introductory level undergraduate courses to courses that could be used as a "capstone" for an undergraduate program.

  • Energy and the Environment provides students not majoring in science with an opportunity to study world energy and environmental issues while learning basic concepts of physical science.
  • Oil and Water: Oil (energy) and water are two key strategic resources dominating the international scene and for which people have been and will continue to fight and go to war over. Energy and water play a major role in most of the main geopolitical issues of our time. As climate changes and population increases, these resources will be affected and their usage will in return affect climate. This class has students analyze global energy, water and climate data sets and ponder about some of the social, economic and geopolitical ramifications of these data. It brings together important ideas in geocience, technology and global policy.
  • Geoscience and Global Concerns is an exploration of how technologically-based problems facing the United States and the world relate to the Earth system, including the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. The set of issues include such geoscience-based topics as fossil fuel resources, nuclear power, renewable energy sources, global warming, meteorology, and seismology.
  • Modeling Earth and Environmental Systems: Students build and use models of climatic, hydrologic, geochemical, and human systems, explore the basic concepts of systems modeling, use models to test hypotheses, and find out about the assumptions and approximations that must be made in modeling.
  • The Earth's Climate System provides an introduction to the climate system through lectures, labs, discussions and activities. It uses lecture and inquiry based activities to help students gain understanding of the oceanic, atmospheric and anthropogenic components of a complex system.
  • Environmental Systems Theory begins with an exploration of chaos and complex systems theory as an antidote to the equilibrium thinking most students have been taught. This includes the logistic model as a basic definition of chaos theory, and complex systems models self-organized criticality, Bak-Sneppen ecosystem, network theory, attractors, hysteresis, and bistable systems (many accompanied by computer-based experiments). The remaining two third of the semester is devoted to understanding and explaining the behavior of Earth systems and human societies in terms of the non-equilibrium universality properties of chaos/complex systems.
  • Systems Modeling and Assessment for Policy explores how scientific information can be used to inform policy decision‐making processes through the use of quantitative modeling techniques. Incorporates both hands‐on analysis and practice using models as well as evaluation of the use and effectiveness of models in decision‐making. Assesses the full spectrum of model complexity from simple box model calculations to complex, global systems models.

For additional examples, explore the complete collection of courses that focus on complex systems


Manduca, Cathryn A. and Kim A. Kastens (2012). Mapping the domain of complex earth systems in the geosciences, in Kastens, K.A. and Manduca, C.A., eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 486, pp. 91-96.