Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Causality in Complex Dynamic Systems: A Challenge in Earth Systems Science Education

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Causality in Complex Dynamic Systems: A Challenge in Earth Systems Science Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The understanding of the mechanisms underlying processes such as self-organization, adaptation, emergence, which are characteristics of complex systems, is of paramount importance when teaching and learning science. Preliminary research on student understanding of complexity indicates that students tend to conceptualize dynamic systems in static disjointed terms, utilizing a linear-mono-causal approach which impedes a conceptual understanding of complex causal relations. Hypothesizing that student understanding of the principles of causality plays a fundamental role in the understanding of complexity, undergraduate science majors have been interviewed to explore their approaches to complex natural phenomena and document changes that occur in reasoning when a modified Aristotelian framework of causality principles is introduced. Results indicate that the understanding of emergence, downward causation, and self-organization are better conceptualized when students utilize the modified Aristotelian framework of causality principles.

INTRODUCTION

Analyzing and teaching natural phenomena means asking the fundamental questions in science: "What happened" "How did that happen?" "Why did that happen?" Starting from these questions we scientists as well as our students embark on the fascinating journey of science looking for explanations and trying to establish causal determinants for observed phenomena of interest. In our discipline we are confronted with non-linearity, self-organization and evolving systems at different levels of complexity, from the formation of a crystal to the understanding of how plate tectonics arises as self-organizing system from the lithosphere-mantle interactions (Bercovici, 1998, 2000, 2003; Tackley, 1998; Anderson, 2002) to global warming. As discussed in more detail below, processes such as emergence and self-organization are regulated by causal principles and causal couplings that are not describable by a linear chain of causes and effects and not defined in the deterministic framework (Drummond, 2001).

Students and teachers have difficulties in describing and explaining phenomena in terms of emergence, self-organization, and stochastic processes (Feltovich, et al., 1989; Resnick,1994,1996; Wilensky and Resnick, 1999, Penner 2000) and may use different ontologies than the ones used by experts when constructing solutions and explanation to complex systems problems Qacobson, 2001; Chi, 2005, Libarkin et al., 2005). Specifically for the geosciences, Libarkin et al. (2005) and Libarkin and Kurdziel (2006) document the difficulties that students in entry level geosciences courses have in conceptualizing processes necessary to achieve an Earth Systems Science perspective. Many students tend to have profound difficulties in explaining mechanisms underlying transformations necessary for the Earth systems to evolve, remaining in a "proto-process" ontological stage: "wherein the student mentions an understanding that a process must exist to cause the transformation, but no further explanation of a specific mechanism is given. This includes mention of a process-related word, such as evolution, but without a clear explanation of what evolution actually is" (Libarkin et al., 2005). When students try to make sense of complex natural phenomena, often their explanations assume deterministic causality (Resnick and Wilensky, 1993; Wilensky and Resnick, 1999; Perkins and Grotzer, 2000; Raia, 2005; Jacobson and Wilensky, 2006). Specifically, students consider phenomena such as emergence and self-organization as being mechanistically caused by a unique cause that completely explains observed pattern or by a linear chain of causes and effects (Resnick 1994, 1996; Resnick, and Wilensky, 1997; Raia, 2005; Gonzalez-Rubio et al. 2005). For example, a V-shape pattern often observed when geese fly as an organized group arises by a process of self-organization. In particular, individual birds have no sense of the overall flock pattern. …

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