Lisa Gilbert: Using Systems Thinking in Oceanographic Processes at Williams-Mystic
About this Course
An intermediate-level course for majors and non-majors.
Williams-Mystic S16 Oceanographic Processes Syllabus Lisa Gilbert (Microsoft Word 67kB May23 16)
A Success Story in Building Student EngagementA desire for interdisciplinary problem-solving skills is one of the reasons students apply to study for one semester at The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport (Williams-Mystic) from all over the country. While students learn approaches from science, policy, history, and literature at Williams-Mystic, teaching the Systems Thinking Module was an explicit effort at teaching students systems language, diagrams, and modeling. The ability to solve complex problems using systems thinking develops over time. Half of the group completed the entire module and was very engaged in and excited by complex problems. Half of the group completed only one unit, and while they showed improved confidence with systems diagrams, the ones not previously exposed to systems thinking did not generalize beyond the examples given.
My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate MaterialsThe examples in the module were easily modified to fit the topics of my course. Even the examples that at first seemed unrelated, such as the MPR piece about wildfires in Minnesota (Unit 1), were an excellent opportunity for students to think about climate teleconnections with the ocean.
Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course
The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport (Williams-Mystic) is an off-campus semester focused on the sea. Students take four courses: Marine Policy, Maritime History, Literature of the Sea, and their choice of one of two science courses (Marine Ecology or Oceanographic Processes); they also take a maritime skill two afternoons a week (shipsmithing, chanteys, canvas work, small boat handling, or demonstration squad).
The Williams-Mystic semester is 17 weeks long and for many of the activities and experiences the class is all together—that is, the Oceanographic Processes and Marine Ecology students are not separated. Week 1 is spent in preparation for going to sea. Weeks 2 and 3 are spent at sea on an oceanographically-equipped tall ship, learning to sail, learning the tools of an oceanographer, and getting a sense of life at sea as context for the rest of the semester. Weeks 4, 5, and 6 are spent out and about in southern New England, learning coastal field tools and refining research questions in preparation for writing a proposal. Weeks 7 and 10 are spent on coastal field seminars to the Pacific Northwest and southern Louisiana, respectively. During the remaining weeks, students devote about 50% of their time for the course on their independent research projects. I work with them individually or in pairs to move from proposal to data collection to analysis, and students produce a written report and give a conference-style presentation.
Unit 1 was completed by the whole Williams-Mystic class, both Marine Ecology and Oceanographic Processes students (n=17) at the end of Week 9. Unit 1 was the first hour of a three-hour class on sea level rise used to help prepare students to make observations in Louisiana.
Units 2–6 were completed during the last 7 weeks of the semester, Weeks 11 through 17.
I used knowledge surveys, polling, worksheets, and exam questions to assess student learning. Students were especially receptive to the knowledge surveys which had them both focus on the learning goals at the start of class and self-assess their progress. I do not normally use worksheets in class, so those were the most incongruous, but students responded well to the scaffolding for modeling that the worksheets provided. Several students came to me and said that the summative assessment and another question on my exam (asking them to design an interdisciplinary capstone assignment) were the two best questions they had ever been asked on an exam and the most fun.
The module is well-aligned with my course goals #3, 4, 5, 6 and 8.
My students stated that they believed that they had met all of the goals at the end of the semester.The module exceeded my expectations and goals in one important way: I came to value modeling as an accessible tool for students. Previously, I had taught individual students MATLAB to make models, but only those who had the inclination and experience to do so. Using the ISEE player opened my eyes to new possibilities in class and for student research projects.