Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Student Learning of Complex Earth Systems: A Model to Guide Development of Student Expertise in Problem-Solving

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Student Learning of Complex Earth Systems: A Model to Guide Development of Student Expertise in Problem-Solving

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Developing geoscience student expertise in addressing environmental issues associated with complex near surface Earth systems (CNSES) represents an important educational goal, as many students will be working in a field that has some environmental component. Current workforce statistics for geoscientists (which excludes hydrologists) indicate that engineering services and consultants make up 17% and 15% of geoscientists, respectively (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). If we include hydrologists, it is likely that at least one-third of geoscience students will go on to work in an industry or profession that relates to CNSES. Steiner and Laws (2006) suggest that students should be able to theorize about complex topics, solve simple and complex real-world problems, and use these skills early in their career. Accordingly, students should be able to perform the same tasks in the classroom, especially at higher educational levels (Xun and Land, 2004). In fact, Stuckey et al. (2013) suggest that as educators, we should (1) prepare students for the workforce, (2) expose students to relevant STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) principles that students can use in their lives, and (3) prepare citizens to make decisions about environmental, scientific, or engineering problems. This places pressure on the academic community to prepare students for the practical application of their knowledge to activities like problem-solving and decisionmaking connected to environmental problems (Steiner and Laws, 2006; Remington-Doucette et al., 2013).

The development of problem-solving skills in real-world situations is not only of interest to geoscientists, but to many other professions and the public in general, especially when addressing environmental issues associated with CNSES such as climate change and flooding (NRC, 2012). These issues should be addressed in the classroom, and identifying a framework can help instructors and researchers to organize teaching practices and design instructional activities. Scherer et al. (2017) identified four distinct frameworks for complex systems within the geoscience education research literature: Earth systems perspective, Earth systems thinking skills, complexity sciences, and authentic complex Earth and environmental systems (see Scherer et al., 2017, for a more detailed explanation). For this work we are operating within the "authentic complex Earth and environmental systems" framework. This framework focuses on "the scientific study of environmental or ecological systems with clear connections to human activities and environmental decision making" (Scherer et al., 2017).

Geoscientists often view the earth from a systems perspective, which provides a frame to understand interactions on the planet in the form of co-dependent systems, such as a watershed or a coastal region. In contrast with a more traditional view of the geosciences, which focuses on individual components or phenomena and is often taught in a way that focuses on facts about science and the Earth that are disjointed and unrelated, the Earth systems approach guides students to a fundamental understanding that everything on the earth is connected, and the Earth system as a whole can be broken down into subsystems with specific characteristics (Ben-Zvi Assaraf and Orion 2005; Raia, 2005; Raia, 2008; Stillings, 2012; Orion and Libarkin, 2014). These types of subsystems, especially when near to the surface, have open boundaries that enable the flow of energy and matter, and so it is difficult to predict the behavior or the dynamics of the system (Herbert, 2006). These same types of systems also typically display behavior including nonlinearity, negative and positive feedbacks, and emergent behavior that may not result from interactions with phenomena from outside of a particular system (Peak et al., 2004; Herbert, 2006; Raia, 2008). The properties of these near-surface Earth systems promote a chaotic environment that can be far from equilibrium, and so we can call these systems complex near-surface Earth systems (CNSES; Bak et al. …

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