Where do complex systems fit in the undergraduate curriculum?

Peter Lea, Bowdoin College

One of the main issues that I would like to discuss in this workshop concerns where and how student understanding of complex systems fits with in a geoscience department's overall undergraduate curriculum. With the addition of an oceanographer and a biogeochemist in the current academic year, we are transforming our curriculum to emphasize earth systems, but have yet to pin down the exact approach for our still-small (5 FTE) department.

One question is the extent to which systems thinking should be presented in sub-disciplinary context ("course by course approach") as opposed to a theoretical underpinning for many or all courses. The latter approach would seem to offer a greater likelihood that students could transfer their knowledge to analyze new situations, but perhaps entails greater "cognitive and affective overhead" and requires substantial coordination among different courses within the major if it is to be offered early rather than late in student's careers. Introductory courses are a particular concern. We already offer successful introductory courses that emphasize authentic research for potential majors and non-majors, commonly in a service-learning context. Although projects within these courses deal with components of complex systems, there is currently little in the way of systems abstraction and overview—would such additions help or hurt student learning at this level?

Additionally, a complex-systems approach naturally lends itself to modeling, and a current junior-level course explicitly treats uses and limitations to modeling. Among the issues addressed are the use of models for explanation vs. policy-relevant prediction, the impossibility of model verification (Oreskes et al., 1994, Science, v. 263, pp. 641-6), equifinality (Beven, 2006, Journal of Hydrology, v. 320, pp. 18-36), and appropriate levels of complexity and parameterization (Murray, 2007, Geomorphology, v. 90, pp. 178-191). I would be interested in learning about—or developing—materials that allow students to undertake hands-on exploration of these concepts without getting bogged down in the commonly steep learning curves of many off-the-shelf numerical modeling packages.