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Modeling Systems Behavior

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This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Frederica Raia, City College of New York
Course: Earth System Science: Physical and Chemical Principles
10-15 students
Students remember what they have seen and done much better than they remember what you have told them.

The Activity

A very important property of dynamic systems is the emergence. Interactions at micro-level among the components of the system profoundly affect the whole system dynamic and properties. To introduce this concept and recognize that the behavior of a system is not necessarily and solely explainable considering a unique and external causal force I have student stand and clap their hands. Students stand next to each other as in a theater and start clapping. After a while their random clapping gets synchronized (as happens in theater after a performance).

My question to the students is then how did the synchronization occur. During the discussion that follows it generally comes out that they started paying attention to their neighbor's rhythm because either, as some of my students say, it feels odd to have somebody next to them following a different rhythm or it "just happened" to them to follow their neighbor's rhythm. In this case the synchronized clapping is not caused by a leader or a conductor imparting the rhythm but by simple rules that the components of the system (students) developed in their interaction with others.

I continue and expand the discussion, considering other possibilities such as removing students from the group, creating larger space among them, etc., and the possible macro-level outcomes. From this kind of discussion we address more complex systems dynamics which will be the theme of the course.

Additional Information

This activity has been modified from a similar activity used by the Epistemology and Learning Group at MIT Media Laboratory for the introduction of the concept of emergence (Resnick and Wilensky, 1998).

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