Teaching and Learning About Feedback Loops

Thursday, Friday 8-11am PT / 9am-12pm MT / 10am-1pm CT / 11am-2pm ET Online


Kim Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Tim Shipley, Temple University
Alexandra Davatzes, Temple University
Kelcey Wallens-Logan, Barnard College

Feedback loops (FLs) are a powerful concept for Earth educators in the 21st century. Reinforcing (aka "positive") feedback loops underlie many environmental problems, including climate change and inequitable distribution of ecosystem services. Balancing (aka "negative") feedback loops lie at the heart of many plausible solutions, such as efforts to re-establish predator-prey balance. Feedback loops can have strong explanatory power for systems exhibiting characteristic behaviors of growth, decay or oscillation. And they can have strong predictive power for anticipating future behavior of systems. This workshop seeks to establish FLs as a generalizable concept and habit of mind that can strengthen students' thinking throughout the curriculum.


This workshop will explore cognitive and practical obstacles to teaching and learning about FLs and practice three different teaching strategies for building students' facility with FLs: kinesthetic learning, mutual alignment analogy, and use of static and dynamic visualizations. Each teaching strategy will have its underlying rationale explained, then be demonstrated, tried out by the workshop participants, and reflected upon in small group discussions. Examples will span life sciences, earth sciences, and social sciences. Working in breakout groups clustered by topic or audience, participants will draft a student activity using one of the three strategies.

Workshop Program »

Target Audience

This workshop is applicable to high school and college instructors who would like to strengthen the Earth Systems perspective in their teaching. For instructors of interdisciplinary courses, feedback loops can provide a powerful integrative theme to connect across natural and social sciences. If you have been teaching about one or a few specific feedback loops (e.g. ice-albedo feedback), this workshop will help you to broaden students' FL thinking into a generalizable habit of mind. [Note that this workshop does not cover use of systems dynamics modeling software such as STELLA or Vensim.]


  • Workshop attendees will leave with strategies to help their learners recognize feedback loops when they encounter them in novel situations.
  • Workshop attendees will leave with strategies to help their learners deploy feedback loop thinking to explain and anticipate behaviors of growth, decay or stability.
  • Workshop attendees will leave with strategies to help their learners leverage feedback loop thinking to design solutions to problems that they care about and that the world cares about.
  • Workshop attendees will leave with a draft of a student activity they can use in a course they teach.


Day 1 will begin with a small group activity to bring forth in what contexts we all teach--or wish to teach--about feedback loops.  Then, each of the three teaching strategies will be introduced, each accompanied by an opportunity for  reflection/brainstorming on how this might be useful in my course.

Day 2 will begin with a presentation and discussion of what research has revealed about the obstacles and challenges involved in FL thinking.  Small groups will then work to draft a student activity that uses one of the workshop's strategies, recording their ideas in a SERC Activity Sheet.  Day 2 will close with sharing out of the activity ideas and reflections on the broader role of FL thinking in Earth and Environmental education.

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