Karl Kreutz: Using Systems Thinking in Global Environmental Change at University of Maine
About this CourseLower-division course for Earth and Climate Science majors; typically I have a range of freshman to seniors, and a range of natural and social science majors.
A Success Story in Building Student Engagement
My course focuses on the reservoir of atmospheric carbon dioxide — what controls it, how it has changed in the geologic past, how it is changing now and the role that humans have played in its evolution, the effects on Earth's energy balance, and potential future climate and environmental implications. Because these processes play out on a range of time and space scales, direct experimentation is difficult in an undergraduate setting. Systems thinking provides an ideal platform for understanding the flow of carbon between reservoirs, and for gaining an appreciation of how important the intersection of Earth science and society is with respect to carbon, climate, and energy. Implementing this module made a dramatic difference in the class, improving student learning on everything from global models of the carbon cycle to the formation and flow of methane in our local peat bog.
My Experience Teaching with InTeGrateMaterialsI used the module essentially as is. I modified the materials to be specific to my course where necessary, which most often meant only very minor changes. I did adapt one unit (five) to be specific for my class as necessary, focusing on the long-term carbon cycle. I came to appreciate the flexibility we designed into the module, so that it can easily be adapted to any instructor's specific needs.
Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course
My course runs for a 14-week semester. I did Units 1–4 during the second and third week of the course, after introducing students to the global carbon cycle and atmospheric CO2 variability on different timescales. Units 5 and 6 were done later in the course, to introduce new aspects of the long-term carbon cycle and then to synthesize overall carbon cycle knowledge from a systems perspective.
AssessmentsI used all of the in-class assessments, and found that students responded well to them. Each is designed to provide an active learning experience, and indeed they each fostered an active dialogue among students and between students and instructors. I used about half of the homework assessments, relying instead on other lab assignments and problem sets that were aligned with the course objectives. I also used a somewhat modified summative assessment (Acrobat (PDF) 110kB Jul23 18), which focused on the scientific argumentation skills that we developed throughout the course. In general, I found that students were fully engaged in the Systems Thinking assessment materials.
My original goal was for students to develop a solid grasp of two fundamental systems thinking concepts: equilibrium and feedbacks. In the past, these concepts have proven challenging to isolate and teach effectively, especially when trying to convey the broader relevance in science and society. I think the combination of systems vocabulary, diagramming, and modeling that are used in the module were quite successful for teaching those concepts. When I gave the course summative assessment, I was pleased with the level of discussion and understanding students were able to achieve with respect to carbon cycle dynamics, climate, and human impacts.