Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Students' Understanding of Complex Dynamic Systems

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Students' Understanding of Complex Dynamic Systems

Article excerpt


Students' approach to complex dynamic systems and their mental models utilized to construct knowledge, play a powerful role in what students learn in undergraduate college courses. In this paper, I report the analysis of responses to three questions - probing approaches to complexity - given by sixteen upper-level undergraduate students. Results show that students tend to conceptualize dynamic systems in static disjointed terms, considering the isolated behavior of the constituent components. Students also identify a single causal force, or linear chain of unique causal forces to explain complex natural phenomena. Students' attitudes as well as system of beliefs are unaffected in absence of a fundamental shift of paradigm: from a linear-causal thinking approach to a systems thinking approach-characterized by the recognition of the mutual interactions of system components, the ability to distinguish between micro and macro levels of analysis and the understanding of system's emergent property.


Geosciences in a Complex Systems Theory Perspective - Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) at the "Earth Summit" meeting in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, (UNCED, 1992), there has been a significant increase of attention to the complex interrelationships among people, the environment, and the economy, calling for a holistic approach to sustainable development.

As a result, grant funding agencies and educators are increasingly encouraging the research and development of new curricula that emphasize an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to the study of the Earth system within the intellectual framework defined in Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education (Ireton et al.,1996). Today, Earth system science forms the foundation of NASA's Earth science mission I "To Understand and Protect Our Home Planet" utilizing a systems approach and the NSF long range planning effort as part of the nations' global change research and educational objectives (Pfirman & the AC-ERE, 2003). Current research programs and initiatives are all solicited to integrate educational components because "in the coming decades, the public will be called upon more frequently to understand complex environmental issues, assess risk, evaluate proposed environmental plans, and understand how individual decisions affect the environment at local to global scales." (Pfirman & the AC-ERE, 2003).

With the overall goal of understanding the mechanisms and improving prediction of natural phenomena for the betterment of mankind and society, the merit of developing and implementing curricula to educate the next generation to address complexity is very high. With in the contemporary system of acquiring expertise in teaching, we, university faculty, try to infuse in students a view and an understanding of our planet as a single, integrated dynamic system governed by complex processes involving the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere in order to comprehend how global change affects local areas; how local changes integrate in a global context; and how to manage Earth's precious natural resources, i.e., we try to foster a system approach to complexity.

System Properties - Adopting a system view is of paramount importance because rather than reducing an entity to the sum of properties of its components, a system approach focuses on the arrangement of and relations among the parts, which connect them into a whole (von Bertalanffy, 1968). This approach is necessary for two reasons: first, system properties emerge at a higher level as the result of interactions among system components (von Bertalanffy, 1968; Holland 1998) and second, the emergent pattern itself exerts a downward causation on the lower level from which it has emerged (Campbell,1974). This is best illustrated by an example in the geosciences as similarly reported in Principia Cybernetica (Heylighen, 1995). …

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