Integrating complex and nonlinear systems thinking into the secondary education science curriculum

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Monday, 18 January 2010
Benjamin J. Hatchett, DRI, Reno, NV; and S. Gronstal, M. Slayden, D. R. Koracin, J. Ewing-Taylor, and J. C. Chow

Complex and nonlinear systems characterize life on Earth and are a highlight of modern existence. Few natural systems better embody complexity and nonlinearity than do weather and climate. Unfortunately, it is well-established that even students at the undergraduate level have difficulties learning concepts related to such systems as they may appear counter-intuitive, thereby conflicting with frequently held beliefs, or are oversimplified such that a single element represents coupled systems. Such difficulties make it challenging for students to grasp modern problems such as climate change. Thus, a need exists to incorporate systems thinking in the secondary K-12 school curriculum (Grades 7-9) to better facilitate the transition to understanding complex and nonlinear systems. At these ages, the mind is capable of learning the basic tenets of such systems and applying them to real world phenomena. Here we present several highly observational, non-mathematical, conceptual thought and laboratory experiments designed to integrate features of complex systems into secondary education science curriculums. Three grade-appropriate web modules based on these concepts and experiments using real world data and examples are being developed as outreach tools for distribution to Northern Nevada school programs during the 2009-2010 school year. The goals of these modules are to showcase the nonlinearity and complexity inherent to Earth systems while allowing a hands-on learning experience adaptable to a middle-school science curriculum.