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Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences

"Complex systems are those with many strongly interdependent variables. This excludes systems with only a few effective variables, the kind we meet in elementary dynamics. It also excludes systems with many independent variables; we learn how to deal with them in elementary statistical mechanics. Complexity appears where coupling is important, but doesn't freeze out most degrees of freedom." (Boccara, 2004)

polar bear habitat
Projected changes (based on 10 IPCC AR-4 GCM models run with the SRES- A1B forcing scenario) in the spatial distribution and integrated annual area of optimal polar bear habitat. Base map shows the cumulative number of months per decade where optimal polar bear habitat was either lost (red) or gained (blue) from 2001–2010 to 2041–2050. Offshore gray shading denotes areas where optimal habitat was absent in both periods. Insets show the average annual (12 months) cumulative area of optimal habitat (right y-axis, line plot) for four 10-year periods in the 21st century (x-axis midpoints), and their associated percent change in area (left y axis, histograms) relative to the first decade (2001–2010).

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 (e.g. the carbon cycle and the hydrologic cycle), feedback loops, and chaotic and fractal behavior within earth systems (such as coastlines, drainage networks, climate, and earthquakes). The dynamic, non-linear 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 ( This site may be offline. ) .

Jump down to Background * Pedagogy * Resource Collections (teaching activities, courses, and more) * Workshops * Join the Discussion

Resources for Teaching About Complex Systems



Resource Collections

  • 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
  • Do you have a resource (teaching activity, course, visualization, reference, or other) to recommend? Please share a resource.


April, 2010

We held a workshop April 18-20, 2010 at Carleton College, in Northfield, MN. See the workshop synthesis for key ideas arising from the workshop or the workshop website for details.

December, 2010

We also held a workshop at the fall AGU meeting in 2010 on Teaching About Complex Systems Using the STELLA Modeling Software. See the workshop program page for presentations and examples.

Join the Discussion

Join our complex systems email list. Share insights, ask questions, or network with other faculty. The link above will also provide access for list members to the email list archives.

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