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Unit 6: Systems Thinking Synthesis

Lisa Gilbert (Williams College), Karl Kreutz (University of Maine), and Deborah Gross (Carleton College)

Summary

This in-class exercise is an alternative to standard review sessions and models the systems thinking students need to do when working on complex, interdisciplinary issues. Students quiz each other on course material and then find authentic (and often creative) connections between seemingly disparate topics in the course. This approach challenges students to use holistic thinking when reviewing, and can be readily customized for any course.

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Learning Goals

Students will be able to explain complex and nuanced connections between seemingly unrelated topics in the course.

Context for Use

This exercise works well at the end of a course, as an alternative to standard review sessions, with or without any prior discussion of systems thinking. The exercise can be used for any course in any field, at any level, although the assessment and rubric are aimed at introductory to intermediate undergraduate courses in the sciences.

Description and Teaching Materials

Preparation: The instructor should start by generating a list of approximately 10 (or more) review-type questions that represent the breath of material covered. To each question attach a related process, overarching theme, or syllabus topic. Use the list of questions and associated topics to replace the questions and topics in the student handout Student Handout for Synthesis Excercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 79kB Sep14 16) or PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Sep14 16). The example is from an oceanography course, and follows the course syllabus closely Sample syllabus from Oceanography Course (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 195kB Jul17 15).

Part 1. Review and discussion connections in pairs. (20–40 min)

  • Each student in the class receives a sheet with an instructor-generated question and related topic Student Handout for Synthesis Excercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 79kB Sep14 16) or PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Sep14 16) .
  • Review the directions at the top (3–5 min) and model how to do the exercise in pairs (Student A and Student B), following the instructions on the sheet.
  • The instructor can use a bell or timer (or just an oral warning) to tell students when to rotate to a new partner. The instructor should give the first pairing about 7 minutes. Then, 5 minutes thereafter. In a small class, the instructor can move through all the groups in the first round or two answering questions about the process. If the class is struggling, an instructor could stop the group after the first pairing for any questions.
  • After 3–5 rounds of pairings for as much time is available (minimum of 20 to maximum of 40 minutes), the instructor stops the group.

Part 2. Group discussion. (10 min)

Instructor poses the question on the board:

What are two topics you thought were especially difficult to connect?

  • The instructor writes the topics on the board and students volunteer creative connections, which are also written on the board.
  • After about three pairs, the instructor challenges the class to find a topic from the course that no one else can convincingly connect to the topics already listed. These new topics are listed on the board and students volunteer connections.

Part 3. Review advice. (5 min or homework, optional)

At the end of class, the instructor poses two to three challenges to students as they review course material, or hands out this homework Synthesis Exercise Reflection (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 45kB Sep14 16) or PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 25kB Sep14 16):

  1. Search for themes that connect many topics (e.g., density, drivers of ocean change, etc.)
  2. Which of the topics you listed either cannot be influenced by society nor influence society in any way?
  3. (optional) List connections to something you learned outside this course this semester (another course this term or in the past from outside this discipline, current event in the news, etc.).

Teaching Notes and Tips

Part 1.

Modeling the exercise with a TA or student may clarify many of the questions that arise. For the first round, the instructor and TA(s), if available, should briefly check in with as many groups as possible to make sure they understand what to do.

When 5 minutes remain for Part 1, the instructor can call out "last pairing" and direct students who finish before 5 minutes to the full list of questions and topics on the back of their sheet. Students generally proceed quickly to quietly reading this study guide, which makes it easier to call time for the group discussion.

For large classes, multiple students will get the same sheet, but as long as there are about 10 unique sheets, students should not have trouble finding 3–6 different pairings.

Alternative approach: either in class (before the Synthesis class) or as homework, have students write their own review questions. Use the student-generated questions to generate the student handouts.

Parts 2 and 3.

For Part 2 , students can be encouraged take out their syllabus to locate additional topics quickly. Parts 2 and 3 can be combined into a single instructor-led discussion. An instructor can draw connections between topics quickly and point out additional connections as the diagram is made, and encourage students to continue part of their review by making their own diagram in this fashion.

Assessment

This unit is assessed with a broad synthesis question on a final exam or as a take-home writing assignment. As an exam question, completion time is about 20 minutes. In the question below substitute"ocean" for "Earth" or "climate" or other more relevant term for the course.

Imagine it is some months from now and you have applied for a job as an ocean science writer for a new popular science magazine called Our Changing Ocean. In the interview, the editor asks you:

"People say 'everything is connected,' but I rarely get specific examples. Will you convince me of the connectedness and complexity of the ocean?"

Write what you would say in response by picking any three seemingly unrelated concepts from this course and relating them in the the context of human interaction with the ocean. Be sure to use systems thinking language and specific examples.

Alternative Assessment. This exam question or writing assignment addresses how thinking about a problem from a systems perspective leads to more nuanced conclusions than considering just individual parts or a single cause-effect relationship. Student handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 127kB Sep14 16) (PDF version). (Acrobat (PDF) 105kB Sep14 16)

  • You have been selected to speak to your town council on the issue of cormorant hunting.
    • The first speaker states the cause-effect relationship plainly: cormorants are eating salmon, therefore we have to remove cormorants.
    • Now it is your turn. How would showing a systems diagram like the one shown here make your policy recommendations different from that of the first speaker?
    • A full-credit answer is (1) logical, (2) clear, and (3) makes reference to complexity/nuance, especially the importance of environmental policy decisions being made based on more than a simple cause-effect relationship.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »