Karl Kreutz: Using Systems Thinking in Global Environmental Change at University of Maine
About this Course
Lower-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.
Two 75-minute lecture sessions and one 3-hour lab
ERS201 Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 215kB Jul23 18)
Global Environmental Change (ERS 201) examines the physical and chemical interactions among the primary systems operating at Earth's surface (atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, lithosphere) on various timescales throughout geologic history. We will consider internal and external forces that have shaped environmental evolution, including the role of humans in recent geochemical and climatic change. During lecture and laboratory sessions, our goals are to develop critical thinking and writing skills and a scientific approach to the complex array of feedbacks operating at Earth's surface, as well as an appreciation for how past environmental change informs current societal issues. Course may include field trips during class hours.
Course Goals: In ERS201: Global Environmental Change, students will:
- Use a systems approach to study the interaction of surface processes linking the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and anthrosphere
- Explore Earth system proxy records to appreciate the dynamic range and rates of climate and environmental change
- Investigate the influence of humans on surface processes using geochemical tools
- Use systems models to best explain available geological evidence
- Couple past and present Earth system data with societal trends to evaluate future climate scenarios
- Practice experimental design, data acquisition, uncertainty analysis, data interpretation, and communication in the field, laboratory, and classroom
- Develop evidence-based scientific argumentation skill using data from multiple sources (direct and remote observation, and models)
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.
Using this module assured me that students left class with a fundamental set of systems thinking skills, something that is critical for addressing any of the grand Earth science challenges facing us as a society.
My Experience Teaching with InTeGrateMaterials
I 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.
Unit 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking: a great beginning, after having already shown students how a particular reservoir (atmospheric CO2) varies on different timescales, without first having assigned systems terminology to anything. Having students begin with a familiar system (a bathtub), and build complexity through the unit, was fantastic.
Unit 2: Picturing a System: This was a great introduction to systems diagramming, using the global carbon cycle. Students were able to diagram, gallery walk, and importantly begin to identify where quantitative information could/should be used. I integrated the homework into a field trip to a local bog.
Unit 3: Modeling a System: This unit provided our course with a transition to using quantitative information to evaluate a system. Using a simple bathtub model provided continuity between our systems diagramming and systems modeling efforts, and could easily be related to process in the carbon cycle.
Unit 4: Feedbacks in a System: We continued our use of the bathtub systems model, and incorporated both positive and negative feedbacks. The systems model was particularly useful for demonstrating both balancing and reinforcing (runaway) behavior, and tipping point behavior. Relating it to a real world example (Arctic sea ice) was instructive for students.
Unit 5: I used this unit to introduce processes in the long-term carbon cycle. Using a combination of systems diagramming, and identifying quantitative information, was easier here because of the background students had from Units 1–4.
I 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.
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