Teaching About Complex Systems
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:
- Using computer models to teach complex systems,
- Combining an inquiry-based approach with multiple representations of complex systems, and
- Using a role-playing approach to coupled natural and human systems.
- The Teach Systems Thinking page from InTeGrate offers ideas for effectively incorporating systems thinking into the classroom.
- Assessing student understanding of complex systems is challenging. It begins with formulating learning goals for your students, then choosing appropriate assessment tools for evaluating those goals.
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
- 2010 Workshop on Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences: In April, 2010, faculty from around the U.S. converged on Carleton College to discuss effective strategies for teaching about complex systems in the geosciences. See the workshop synthesis for key ideas arising from the workshop.
- 2010 Workshop on Teaching About Complex Systems Using the STELLA Modeling Software: We held a workshop at the fall AGU meeting in 2010 on the use of STELLA modeling software to teach systems thinking in geoscience courses. See the workshop program page for presentations and examples.
- Related event: Teaching About Earth's Climate Using Data and Numerical Models: This virtual workshop, held in October, 2010, explored the role of numerical models in undergraduate climate change education. Workshop participants compiled this list of resources for teaching about climate using data and models.
Do you have a resource (teaching activity, course, visualization, reference, or other) to recommend? Follow the links below to share