Teaching About Complex Systems

Understanding the Earth system is one of the fundamental challenges, and rewards, of being a geoscientist. The dynamic, non-linear, interdependent behavior inherent in complex systems poses particular challenges for teaching and learning. Yet teaching systems thinking is vitally important, as highlighted in Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems (more info) . Understanding our dynamic planet is greatly enhanced with a systems perspective.

What Is a Complex System? | Systems Thinking in the Geosciences | Teaching Systems Thinking | Events | Get Involved

What Is a Complex System?

The study of complex systems in the geosciences encompasses a broad range of topics, including the interactions of the various "spheres" (atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere), cycles, feedback loops, and chaotic and fractal behavior within earth systems. Read an introduction to complex systems, with detailed descriptions of the defining characteristics of complex systems, supplemented by several additional definitions of complexity.

Systems Thinking in the Geosciences

The Earth is a complex system, composed of many interacting subsystems. Understanding the behavior of these complex systems is both essential and counter-intuitive (e.g. Manduca and Kastens, 2012; Stillings, 2012). For our students to develop such an understanding, we need to introduce them to systems thinking in the geosciences.

Teaching Systems Thinking

The Place of Systems Thinking in the Curriculum

Because of its complexity, systems thinking is best developed through multiple examples in multiple contexts. To produce graduates who are proficient at systems thinking, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. See examples of how faculty are teaching systems thinking across the geoscience curriculum.

Selected Pedagogical Approaches

There are many promising pedagogical approaches to teaching about complex systems, including:

Resource Collections

Once you've decided where to add a systems thinking component to your course(s), you can search for relevant materials in our resource collections. The resource collections listed below reflect the contributions of faculty members from across the country.

  • Teaching activities for the classroom and lab, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
  • Courses with a focus on complex systems, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
  • Assessments of student understanding of complex systems, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond
  • Visualizations: graphics, animations, and videos
  • Recommended readings: a selected set of readings on teaching about complex systems, modeling complex systems, and complex systems research
  • References: a broad collection of books, journal articles, and other references about complex systems in the geosciences or about teaching complex systems thinking


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Do you have a resource (teaching activity, course, visualization, reference, or other) to recommend? Follow the links below to share

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Complex Systems resources from across Teach the Earth »

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