Systems modeling as a framework for active learning in non-majors environmental science
Non-majors science teaching has received much less attention than questions of production and retention of STEM majors. Non-majors science courses have very different challenges compared to majors-sequence courses, including low science engagement and high variation in existing math and science competency among the student population. Despite the fact that most non-STEM students are required to take a non-majors science course, and the acknowledged importance of scientific literacy in non-scientists, many courses are developed as lightweight versions of majors-sequence courses without meaningful active learning components.
We describe a class that was developed under a highly specific mandate: to create a non-majors environmental science course that integrated into the core curriculum of business, engineering, and design students while introducing students to the concept of systems thinking. Furthermore, the course design was constrained by a requirement to be portable across many different faculty members and to function without a laboratory component.
We developed a set of activities that were based around the construction of systems models using the free systems dynamics software package Vensim. This allowed for a low-cost, yet active, learning environment that eventually developed into a fully “flipped classroom” implementation.
We structured the course around a few big issues that we felt could: 1) create a coherent narrative for the course 2) integrate instruction across systems thinking and environmental science themes, and 3) integrate easily into a variety of majors. Once these learning outcomes had been identified we created in class-activities, including both day-to-day assignments and longer term project work, based on systems modeling. For three years these activities were tested and updated each semester.
Assessment of this course has revealed several strengths of a systems modeling approach in teaching environmental science. It allows a scalable approach to the quantitative elements of environmental science such that students can engage with models at levels appropriate to their own mathematical backgrounds. The modular nature of systems modeling allows for easy integration of ecological, social, and economic systems. Construction of models forms a robust framework for inquiry-based learning, including student engagement with the primary literature. Model construction encourages students to focus on developing solutions to environmental problems.
Student response to the course was positive when compared to other non-majors science offerings. In anonymous surveys students self-reported that the course content was relevant and useful to their professional trajectory.