Systems Thinking in the Geosciences
In many ways, systems thinking is counter-intuitive. It requires students to "overcome a natural preference for plausible, unitary causal mechanisms" (Stillings, 2012). For example, consider the effect of evaporation on the amount of water in the atmosphere. On the one hand, evaporation from surface waters leads to an increase in cloud cover, thus reducing the Earth's albedo, which would be expected to decrease the amount of surface water evaporating. On the other hand, evaporation from surface waters also leads to an increase of water vapor in the atmosphere, which contributes to the greenhouse effect, increasing atmospheric temperatures, which would be expected to increase the amount of surface water evaporating. Furthermore, complex systems often exhibit extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, time lags in response to perturbations, and emergent behaviors that are not apparent from a casual examination of system components (Stillings, 2012). This is why geoscience students need to learn about complex systems explicitly: systems behavior defies intuition.
Earth and environmental science curricula are shifting their foci toward the "grand challenges" facing our planet (NRC, 2001), and chief among these is climate change (Stillings, 2012). The Earth's climate system is a complex interplay between all of its subsystems. As sentient beings, humans have the unique opportunity to make choices about how we affect Earth systems. But in order to make informed choices, we need first to understand these systems.
References and additional resources
Assaraf, O. B-Z., and N. Orion (2005). Development of system thinking skills in the context of earth system education: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 42, n. 5, pp. 518-560.
Ireton, M.F.W., C.A. Manduca, and D.W. Mogk (1997). Shaping the future of undergraduate earth science education: Innovation and change using an earth systems approach. American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 61 pp.
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.
National Research Council (2001). Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences. National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 106 pp.
Science Education Resource Center. Teach Systems Thinking, accessed April 14, 2015.
Science Education Resource Center. What is Systems Thinking?, accessed August 2016.
Stillings, Neil (2012). Complex systems in the geosciences and in geoscience learning, 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. 97-111.