Observing the Rio Grande Ecosystem to Promote Systems Thinking

Diane I. Doser, University of Texas at El Paso

Gary Weissman, University of New Mexico

Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: May 26, 2017 | Reviewed: July 12, 2017


This series of activities uses the Rio Grande ecosystem to promote systems thinking. The concepts for the activities were developed during the Earth Educators' Rendezvous in 2015. Activities E1-E3 were developed by Diane Doser at the University of Texas at El Paso for in-class and homework assignments for a large section of "Introduction to Environmental Science" for college freshman who are primarily non-science majors. The activities revolve around the middle Rio Grande ecosystem near El Paso, Texas. Activities M1-M3 were developed by Gary Weissman at the University of New Mexico as a series of in-class and field activities associated with a lower division course for environmental science majors. This series of activities explores systems thinking as associated with the Middle Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico. All activities were designed with multicontext diversity in mind, where some activities tap into 'higher' context approaches and others tap into 'lower' context approaches to understanding a system (see Ibarra 2001 for more details or http://serc.carleton.edu/earth_rendezvous/2016/program/morning_workshops/w7/index.html for workshop information from the Earth Educators' Rendezvous 2016 on this approach to diversity). We also take a place based approach, focusing on the local Rio Grande ecosystem, since place based learning has been shown to aid diverse students in understanding course material (Semken, 2005).

We believe these assignments could be adapted for other settings by having the students observe any local ecosystem that they are familiar with such as a nearby river or stream, forest, meadow, sea shore or lake shore or urban park.

Keywords: system thinking, Rio Grande ecosystem, biogeochemical cycles, multicontextual diversity, place based learning, jigsaw activities

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Activities E1-E3: Activities E1-E3 were given as in-class and homework activities for a 1000-level Introduction to Environmental Science course primarily for undergraduate non-science majors. At the time of the assignments the class was reviewing concepts of matter, energy and systems and had received a brief introduction to biogeochemical cycles. Because this was the second week that students had worked together in groups they were still tentative in their group interactions. The activities revolve around a photograph of the Rio Grande taken near El Paso, Texas.
Activities M1-M3: Activities M1-M3 were part of an undergraduate-level (300-level) course in Environmental Systems. This is the first class after the introductory class that these students will take in Environmental Sciences.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Activities E1-E3: Students have reviewed concepts of matter and energy and have been introduced to the components of "systems" in a mini-lecture prior to activity E1. During the homework activity (E2) they are expect to refer to diagrams (either in their books or course materials that are posted on-line) on the water, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles. These cycles are reviewed in class prior to the start of activity E3.
Activities M1-M3: Students must be aware of concepts behind material and energy exchange in systems and how systems may be mapped through a box diagram. This is the first activity for the class and is used as a refresher on systems thinking (with the assumption that the students were exposed to systems thinking in their 101 class). The field trip for this activity is completed on the first day of class, with the follow-up in-class exercise run on the second day of class. The activity is part of a larger module that explores the interactions between the fluvial geomorphology, groundwater, and cottonwood trees under the context of anthropogenic change along the Rio Grande.

How the activity is situated in the course

Activities E1-E3 are a sequence of exercises for an introductory class.

Activities M1-M3 are part of a sequence of in-class and field exercises focusing on the Rio Grande Bosque.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Activities E1-E3:
- Students will be able to identify components of a system (inputs, outputs, matter, energy, reservoirs, fluxes)
- Students will begin to explore the concept of feedback
- Students will relate specific biogeochemical cycles (i.e., water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous) to the Rio Grande ecosystem
- Students will learn to make observations
Activities M1-M3:
- Students will be able to construct a systems map of a complex (and local) system (the Cottonwood forest/fluvial geomorphologic system of the Rio Grande near Albuquerque, NM).
- Students will be able to write clear and concise field notes.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Activities E1-E3:
- Students will visualize the interrelatedness of systems
- Students will develop models interlinking the biogeochemical cycles
- Students will predict what an ecosystem looked like in the past and what it might look like in the future (the impact of humans on the systems)
- Students will begin to connect the health of ecosystems to human well being
Activities M1-M3:
- None for this part of the exercise (though other parts of this module synthesize tree size data and fluvial geomorphology from field measures and aerial photographs to conduct spatial analyses of this system).

Other skills goals for this activity

Activities E1-E3:
- Students will learn to work in groups and consider a range of view and opinions
- Students will begin to realize there are many ways to observe a system and approach a problem
Activities M1-M3:
- Students will be able to flex between higher-context thinking and lower-context thinking.
- Students will be able to describe different but valid approaches to scientific observation of a system.

Description and Teaching Materials

Activities E1-E3:
Day 1: in-class jigsaw activity (E1):
Following a brief (~10 min) lecture/overview on matter, energy and systems the students begin the individual part of activity E1. A photograph of the Rio Grande near El Paso is projected on to the large screen in the class room and is also available on-line at the course web pages so students can view the image in more detail. The course has about 120 students and students have been assigned into groups of 3 to 4 students for the activity. In my course sequencing this is only the second time they have worked together in a group. The individual part of the activity is where students are asked to write what they feel/observe about the photo and answer a few initial questions. Then they come together as a group (group part) to merge their observations and relate them to how what they are viewing is a system.
Day 2: homework assignment (E2):
Activity E2 is given as a homework assignment. Each student in the group is assigned one of 4 biogeochemical cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous) that they need to relate to the Rio Grande ecosystem. A list of assignments is posted on-line to insure that everyone knows what cycle they have been assigned. Answers to questions are turned in on-line and students are encouraged to bring a copy of their answers to class (they can also access their answers at the class web site). In essence Activity E2 forms the jigsaw pieces for assignment E3.

Day 3: in-class assignment (E3):

Students explain and compare their answers to their separate homework assignments, especially the drawings they have made showing how their biogeochemical cycles relate to the Rio Grande ecosystem. They use their separate cycles to work towards building a large, interconnected cycle for the ecosystem. They also speculate on how humans may impact this system.

Activity E1 - group (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May24 17) Activity E1-group-key (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May24 17) Activity E1 - individual (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB May24 17)

Activity E2 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May24 17) Activity E2 - key (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May24 17)

activity E3-key (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB May24 17) Activity E3 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May24 17)

Activities M1-M3:
Day 1: field activity:
For the first day of class, using a 3-hour block of time, we drive to a site along the Rio Grande in the Cottonwood forest (the Bosque). Prior to the first class of the semester, students are given instructions on (1) how to write field notes https://websites.pmc.ucsc.edu/~crowe/ES109/readings/FIELDNOTEBOOKS.pdf, (2) an example of field notes (see handout "field notebook page.pdf"), (3) a brief write-up on vegetation in the Bosque (see handout "Vegetation of the Bosque.pdf"), and (4) a list of supplies needed for a field trip on Day 1 (Field notebook, pens, pencils, ruler, clipboard, and appropriate clothing for weather conditions). They are required to read this material prior to coming to class.
We walk to a relatively open area in the Bosque with older Cottonwood trees. I instruct the students to sit in a quiet place for 30 minutes, answering the questions on the "Individual Activity" in their field notebooks (see handout "M1-Field trip – Individual Activity systems.docx"). For this activity, I am also assigning groups for the following class session, thus the different names at the top left of the activity page (e.g., Carbon, Water, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus). Otherwise, all pages are the same.
After students complete this part of the exercise, we gather in small groups as assigned at the top left of the instruction page (e.g., Carbon, Water, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus) and discuss observations made. I encourage students to listen to each other to gain an understanding of the approach each individual took to describing the system. I offer examples of higher-context evaluation (emphasis on relationships) versus lower context evaluation (emphasis on objects and attributes), expecting students to observe which approach they and their colleagues used. After about 10 minutes of discussion, I bring us together as a full group to share some of these observations. In this discussion, we not only emphasize what has been observed but also how things were observed.
The rest of the field trip focuses on collecting data that will be used in later exercises focused on map construction, data analysis, spatial analysis of data, and statistical analysis of data. I add this handout ("M2– Bosque field data collection Exercise.docx") for completeness, however the full description this portion of the module is beyond the scope of the systems thinking exercise.

Day 2: Classroom activity – systems mapping

Students are placed into their assigned groups. They work together to answer the questions in handout ("M3 – In-class activity.docx"). These questions guide students to construction of a systems map based on their observations from the field and interpretations of energy and matter transformations.
Questions also focus on using this system map to evaluate how possible changes in one component of the system may impact the entire system. We will use this system map in 3 weeks to evaluate potential impact of changes in river morphology due to anthropogenic activities (upstream dams, use of water) on the Cottonwood forest health.
After the systems maps are constructed, I spend time articulating differences and value of both the higher-context and lower-context approaches to understanding. Students reflect (in writing) on where these approaches came into their groups' understanding of the system.

M1 - Field Trip Individual Activity Systems (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB May24 17) field notebook page (Acrobat (PDF) 483kB May24 17) vegetation of the bosque (Acrobat (PDF) 746kB May24 17) M2-Bosque Field Data Colleciton (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.2MB May24 17)

M3-In-class activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May24 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Activities E1-E3:
Multicontextual thinking is emphasized in the first activity (E1) by asking students what they see (and do not see), feel and think about the photograph of the Rio Grande. This is a purposely open question to allow students to feel comfortable classifying objects and their connections (higher context cultural emphasis), describing objects' features but not necessarily their connections (lower context cultural emphasis) or somewhere in between [see additional comments on multicontextual thinking below]. By focusing on the local Rio Grande ecosystem we also want students to make the connection that ecosystems are something local that they might already know a lot about – but that they have not yet related to the course material.
Activities M1-M3:
In the Day 1 field exercise, I encourage multicontextual thinking by emphasizing use of a full range of senses, including vision, hearing, feeling, thinking, smell, etc. The first question is deliberately open in nature, and interpretations are relatively open on what students should be writing. Students who tend to be from higher context cultures or upbringing will tend to see objects and connections between objects (e.g., they will notice the position of trees, trails, the river, and potentially terraces in relation to each other, with relationships emphasized between these objects) while those from lower context cultures or upbringing will naturally tend to describe objects and attributes of these objects (e.g., they will describe tree height, color, form, diameter and similarly describe other objects around the site without describing relationships between the objects). Multicontextual students may describe a mix of these.
The next four questions are used to encourage students to see this site as a part of a system, looking at their descriptions for key words and the beginnings of a systems map (e.g., looking in their notes for words that relate to matter and energy in the system, controls on inputs and outputs for the system, and relationships between parts of the system. The question on 'feelings' helps incorporate the higher-context thinking since emotions are important parts of understanding for higher-context students. Additionally, this aspect of the evaluation may ultimately lead toward reflection on anthropogenic controls at the site.


Activities E1-E3:
Students turn in individual and group worksheets for activities E1 and E3. Assignment E2 is turned in on-line. All assignments are evaluated for completeness and thoughtfulness (i.e., students not just hurrying to complete assignment). Answers to assignments are posted on-line so that students can observe what types of answers I expected. Students are asked questions on concepts/definitions on quizzes and exams and expected to be able to make sketches of a system or a specific biogeochemical cycle on exams.
Multiple things are assessed in activities M1-M3:
1. Field notebooks are assessed for clarity and completeness. The final systems maps cannot include things not already included in the field notebooks without some reference to where observations came from.
2. Systems maps are evaluated for completeness in developing links between objects.
3. The reflective writing is evaluated for student understanding of how they approached to problem. In this writing, I look for evidence of multicontextual understanding of the site.

References and Resources

Multicontext Theory:
Ibarra, RA, 2001, Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education; The University of Wisconsin Press, 323p. Chapter 3 summarizes information important for this exercise.
Chávez, AF, and Longerbeam, SD, 2016, Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A guide to balancing integrated and individuated cultural frameworks in college teaching; Stylus Press, 241p. Chapter 1 summarizes information important for this exercise. Individuated = low context; Integrated = high context.
Place based learning:
Semken, S., 2005, Sense of place and place-based introductory geoscience teaching for American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduates, Journal of Geoscience Education 53.2, 149-157.
Use of jigsaw activities:
Tewksbury, B., 2009, Jigsaws. http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/jigsaws/index.html