Student Learning of Complex Earth Systems

Bruce E. Herbert, Geology & Geophysics, Texas A&M University

Understanding near-surface earth systems is central to the development of solutions to important environmental issues arising from the growth of human populations and economic activities (Herbert, 2006).

A recent report from the National Research Council (2000), Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences, highlighted the need for new models of science education and training that focuses on developing the expertise in problem-oriented science. In particular, the need for expertise that can address interdisciplinary problems through the efforts of collaborative groups that integrate the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering around common research problems was cited by the report.

Most environmental issues involve complex earth systems, which are defined as near-surface earth systems that exhibit complex spatial characteristics and dynamics. There are three fundamental cognitive challenges in understanding complex earth systems. The first challenge is the conceptualization of natural earth environments as systems with accurate definition of boundaries and the nature of interactions between the elements of the system. Descriptions of the processes that transfer and manipulate matter and energy within the systems and across system boundaries as well as relations between one system and other systems should also be included in an accurate conceptualization. The second challenge is the characterization and explanation of the complex nature of earth systems through a description of the system's state over space and time, self-organization, or emergence of structure or patterns. A system's state encompasses a description of all the important variables of the system and how they change under both steady state and non-equilibrium conditions. The third major challenge is the application of conceptual and scientific models of earth systems to support problem solving and the development of effective environmental policy.

Students, experts, policy managers, and stakeholders have been found to commit cognitive errors when reasoning about environmental issues. The behavior and dynamics of earth systems are often complex enough to make prediction of future behavior difficult. Differences in the conceptualizations of systems by stakeholders have contributed to conflict concerning ecosystem and water resources management, through differences in assumed cause and effect mechanisms and average characteristics of the systems. People's conceptualizations of earth systems, when applied to risk perception, are also often ill-structured leading to incorrect perceptions of risk due to global warming, radon, and electric fields.

Environmental decision‐making can present policy managers and stakeholders with serious behavioral, cognitive, or technical demands. As a result, innovative decision making processes have directly incorporated learning and adaptive management within the processes to identify and minimize cognitive errors. Adaptive management techniques utilize cycles of implementation, evaluation, and improvement to develop more effective environmental strategies. I propose that a better understanding of the cognitive and epistemological issues students have in understanding and reasoning about complex earth systems, along with teaching methods that directly address these learning issues, are needed to support reform in both earth science education and the management of major environmental issues facing human society.

My research group has focused on the development of students' conceptual models about specific earth systems (McNeal et al., 2008; Miller et al., 2010; Sell et al., 2006). Students, like all people, organize knowledge and reason about environmental issues through manipulation of conceptual models. A conceptual model is a relatively enduring and accessible, but limited cognitive representation of an external natural phenomenon. The nature of near-surface earth systems may present major cognitive difficulties to students in their development of authentic, accurate conceptual models of earth systems. Recently, I have become interested in the potential role of analogous reasoning concerning surficial earth systems using large geospatial datasets to scaffold student development of richer, more accurate models of earth systems. Scientific research of complex systems generally focuses on combining the results of three types of studies: modeling, field work and mechanistic-focused experimental studies. Research has shown the benefits of using simulations constructed with Netlogo or Stella. Focusing on scaffolding analogous reasoning in students as they manipulate geospatial datasets may be an important strategy to support student learning about important earth systems that exhibit complexity.


Herbert, B.E., 2006, Student understanding of complex Earth Systems, in (Eds.), C.A.M. a. D.W.M., ed., Special Paper 413: Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth : Boulder, CO, Geological Society of America, p. 95-104.

McNeal, K.S., Miller, H.R., and Herbert, B.E., 2008. The effect of using inquiry and multiple representations on introductory geology students' conceptual model development of coastal eutrophication: J. Geosci. Ed., v. 56, p. 201-211.

Miller, H.R., McNeal, K.S., and Herbert, B.E., 2010, Student's conceptual model development of coastal sand-sediment transport during authentic science inquiry in an introductory physical geology course." J. Geosci. Ed., Accepted.

Sell, K., Herbert, B.E., Stussey, C.L., and Schielack, J., 2006, Supporting Student Conceptual Model Development of Complex Earth Systems Through the Use of Multiple Representations and Inquiry: J. Geol. Ed., v. 54, p. 396-407.