COS 49-5
Developing a systems thinking framework for undergraduate biology education

Tuesday, August 11, 2015: 2:50 PM
326, Baltimore Convention Center
Jennifer L. Momsen, Department of Biological Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND
Elena Bray Speth, Biology, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO
Jonathan Dees, Biological Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND
Caleb Trujillo, Plant Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Sara A. Wyse, Biological Sciences, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN
Tammy M. Long, Plant Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

National calls to reform STEM education are clear: science education should mirror the practice of science. Authentic biology education as depicted by the Vision and Change framework for undergraduate education, includes systems – and systems thinking – as a core concept. However, the skills and knowledge of systems thinking within the context of biology are not well defined. We are addressing this need by articulating a theoretical framework of systems thinking skills that will support the learning, assessment, and evaluation of systems thinking in undergraduate biology. Specifically, we are broadly analyzing systems thinking literature (including systems theory, application, and existing instruments) to develop a systems thinking framework tailored to undergraduate biology education. Here, we present our initial framework, developed from existing literature.


Several unifying principles underlying systems thinking emerged from our literature review that are broadly categorized as system organization and system properties. For example, system organization involves defining system boundaries and identifying and organizing relevant system structures and underlying mechanisms. System processes include a deep understanding of dynamics: how does a system behave over time, how does context or condition impact system behavior, and how can perturbations to or within the system impact the system’s function? In practice, we might expect a learner will externalize and visualize their understanding of system organization through construction of conceptual models. System processes may be evaluated through follow-up prompts asking students to make predictions about and reason with the models they create. We recognize this preliminary suite of systems thinking skills may reflect disciplinary nuances that are not relevant for biology learning at all levels or for certain systems or contexts. In response to that limitation, our next step in the development of this framework is to establish construct validation through iterative bouts of testing, feedback, and revision. Development of a systems thinking framework for undergraduate biology will support the creation of instruction and assessment that promotes systems thinking in undergraduate biology and thus, reflect the practice of contemporary biology.