EXP: Linking Complex Systems: Promoting Reasoning within and Across Interconnected Complex Systems


PIs: Carolyn Staudt, Meridith Bruozas, Chad Dorsey, Eric Klopfer
Concord Consortium
Award Details

Citizens and workers in tomorrow’s world must be prepared to approach what have been called “wicked” problems involving multiple, interlinked complex systems, including issues such as climate change, crime, communicable diseases, transportation, and many more. Preparing learners with the background to face such problems is a primary challenge of our age. To gain a complete understanding of such systems, learners need to understand both the high-level aspects of a system’s dynamics and the rules that govern its individual interacting elements. In this project, the Concord Consortium, the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Argonne National Laboratory Systems Science Center will combine two different proven educational technologies used for understanding complex systems to form a powerful hybrid technology. Using it with learners and researching its value for learning about systems dynamics, the project will shed light on how to foster deep understanding of multiple, interlinked complex systems. The project will conduct research with diverse school districts and project materials and technologies will be made available free of charge to both researchers and practitioners nationwide. Additionally, this project has potential to create tools and generate understanding of great utility to the large field of professionals who currently use technology to model and understand complex systems as part of their everyday work.

Two main approaches and technologies exist currently to aid learning to reason about complex systems. Systems dynamics approaches offer a broad, “eagle’s eye view” of a system that facilitates an almost-immediate sense of the structure and interactions within a system and its components, while agent-based approaches offer an “ant’s eye view” that lays bare the details and mechanisms behind the system’s interactions. Interactions with these two approaches occur at similarly different grain sizes, with systems dynamics views offering the ability to instantiate and easily recast large-scale connections among components quickly and agent-based approaches offering a “fine-control knob” that enables subtle tweaking of the intricate rules underlying the system’s individual actors–fine tweaks that, in complex systems, can often result in surprisingly large and anti-intuitive changes in the overall system itself. Without an explicit connection between these levels of interpretation, learners are left with fragmented experiences and understanding. Merging the agent-based modeling capabilities of MIT’s StarLogo with the systems modeling and diagramming capabilities of the Concord Consortium’s SageModeler software, the project will develop an important new genre of educational technology termed linked-hybrid modeling and test it in K-12 science classrooms. This new technology genre, capable of permitting learners to move between detailed individual models and global views of stocks and flows for the first time, will enable whole new modes of experimentation and should ultimately foster levels of learner reasoning about complex systems and systems dynamics that are not currently possible. The project research will combine theoretical frameworks for both systems dynamics and systems emergence, applying a design-based research approach to study student reasoning of complex systems. By examining how use and design affordances of this new genre lead to productive complex systems reasoning and thus better understanding of systems, the project will lay the groundwork for understanding how to foster powerful learning in the context of wicked problems.