The Case for Teaching Undergraduates about Complex Systems

Learning about complex adaptive systems has been the puzzle piece I needed to connect the ideas from each course I have taken during my undergrad, allowing me to take a step back and see the big picture.

by Emma Fabri (CAS Lab Practicum Placement, Fall 2020 and Winter 2021)

I have just under two months left of my practicum placement at the CAS lab, which also means I have two months left as an undergraduate student at Western University. Recently, I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect on what I have learned throughout the health sciences program and connect it to what I have learned about complex systems this year.

From the very first day in my program, health was discussed using an interdisciplinary lens. Each course I took focused health from a different perspective- ranging from biomedical models of health to public policy addressing social determinants. When I started my practicum placement at the CAS lab in September 2020, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I had never learned about complex adaptive systems before — or so I thought. My first task was to take some time to learn about complexity, and the more I learned, the more I realized that I had been studying health as a complex system this whole time, but I just did not have the formal knowledge or terminology to piece it all together.

Thinking through concepts with a complexity lens has helped me better understand new research questions, and enabled me to dig deeper into finding the underlying factors to any one problem. Learning about complex adaptive systems has been the puzzle piece I needed to connect the ideas from each course I have taken during my undergrad, allowing me to take a step back and see the big picture. I believe introducing students to complex systems provides them with an important toolkit to think critically from an interdisciplinary standpoint, and because of this, every student should be exposed to CAS in their academic career, applied to their field of study.

What have I learned by teaching other undergraduate students about CAS?

During my time at the CAS lab, my peers and I created a series of OWL-based modules for future students of the lab to learn about complex systems. As we developed the course, we received a lot of great feedback from students in programs across different faculties at Western. Their experience with the modules has provided us with really great insight on how to approach teaching CAS.

We learned to present definitions and concepts of complex systems in lay terms, but explain in further detail using examples relevant to students’ interests or course subject matter. Examples help learners picture the theory, so it doesn’t seem so abstract, and demonstrates how CAS is applicable to a range of topics and scales. There are a ton of interactive websites and simulations online that immerse learners in a system so they can see in real time how elements are connected and how changes to individual pieces impact the simulation overall.

So, how could I integrate complexity a course?

Some of my first exposures to systems thinking was in my high school science class, learning about feedback loops in the human body, or evolutionary adaptation. However, these ideas, or components of complex systems, can be observed anywhere. Human interaction, for example, occurs in an inherently a complex network that can be examined using systems terminology, which can be a beneficial tool for students to use when mapping out a social network, or visualizing cause & effect.

Teaching CAS in the undergraduate classroom could be approached many ways. Should it be taught in a methods course? Its own course? Should professors connect CAS to whatever subject they are teaching in individual courses? Or should current courses be restructured to emphasize CAS? No matter what, it is important to start with introducing educators to CAS, because in order for them to understand why they would want to teach CAS, they must also know how CAS fits in with their course content.

Currently, CAS seems to be taught at graduate level for research purposes, but I believe we should introduce it sooner than later, because it can be used to help students at any level frame problems — whether it be in their own lives, or for their studies. We must also emphasize to graduate students the importance of teaching complexity, as they are the future course instructors capable of adopting systems thinking into their classes.

So why bother teaching complexity?

When talking over ideas for this article with my CAS lab peers, we all agreed that learning about complex systems thinking for the first time could be described as the ‘mind blown emoji’, since everything becomes way more connected than we initially imagine it to be. The problems that we learn about in undergraduate courses overlap beyond the context we are taught in class. Discovering a way to explicitly describe these connections is much more helpful than having to figure it out ourselves: this is where teaching CAS comes in.

The world is full of complex problems that require complex solutions. Students will graduate university into a workforce that is collaborative between sectors. We, as students, academics, and citizens, need to be able to understand how parts of a problem are not in a vacuum, they instead all come together, extending beyond a single issue. Students who are introduced to complexity will have the foundation needed to take a well-rounded approach to problem solving — a tool much needed in a world that is globalized and multifaceted.

Some final thoughts

I have three main recommendations for those I have convinced to integrate complexity and systems thinking into the courses they teach:

  1. The earlier the exposure the better. Introduce systems thinking while learning about a problem, rather than retrospectively viewing a problem through a CAS lens can help students better digest the complicated material they may be learning.
  2. Teach CAS with application at the forefront. When introducing complexity theory, use real-world examples that students are able to conceptualize and make connections between ideas they already understand. Then, you can dive deeper into exploring these connections by using complexity theory or modelling frameworks that can seem more abstract when there are not examples to visualize.
  3. Introduce CAS to educators. We must first teach undergraduate instructors about complex systems theory, and its importance in undergraduate learning, so that they are able to teach their students using a complexity lens.

Soon my practicum will wrap up, and a new group of students will start at the lab. With that, I leave you with my hopes for future students of the CAS lab, or any student reading this article who may be interested in learning more about CAS:

  1. Explore the variety of research going on at Western;
  2. See how CAS can relate to any field, and learn how to view problems- whether it be in your academics or personal life- as a complex system; and
  3. Take pride in being a part of this new initiative to bridge research across Western’s campus.

Education is evolving, requiring us to adapt. Teaching CAS does not necessarily require a learner to understand the intricate details of the theory or how to construct mathematical models. Instead, it can be as simple (and profound) as showing students they can make connections between their courses, see problems from different perspectives, and understand just how dynamic the world around us is.