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Course Instructor

Instructor Bio

Understanding Complexity Through Simulation

Little of the conceptual power embodied in the rapidly developing perspectives and tools of complex dynamical systems or informatics has informed the educational experience of our citizenry at any level, save that of graduate students in a few scientific areas. This absence from mainstream education creates many missed opportunities for building links between disparate elements of curriculum...

Complex Systems in Education: Scientific and Educational Importance and Implications for the Learning Sciences


May 3

Learning how things work in the natural and social sciences can be difficult not only because of the complexity of the phenomena involved but also because it is not always possible to simulate such phenomena in a laboratory or in a controlled environment. For example, in order to study how forest fire spreads we may not be able to set up small forest fires. As another example,  it may not always be possible to study the effects of bias in human society with real people. This makes it hard to understand many important real world things like revolutions, epidemics, spread of rumours, dynamics of chemical equilibrium or emergence of large and complex structures(such as protein molecules). 

Fortunately, in the last couple of decades powerful computer simulations have become available, which make it possible for young school students to explore these complex phenomena and gain a deeper understanding of 'how things happen'. The insights gained in this  process of discovery - for example, understanding how the views of an entire population can be changed by a minority group, or how electron-ion collisions lead to electrical resistance - are significant and striking. For young minds it also allows them to explore "doing hands on research" in diverse topics of their own interest by using simulation techniques and tools.

In this course, students will work with selected simulation tools, such as Netlogo, to explore these topics. In the process, they will develop an understanding of many different types, textures and dimensions of cause and effect mechanisms- domino effects that have a tipping point, exponential growth or decay, probabilistic mechanisms, the effect of delays and so on. The context of natural and social sciences will be used. Some of the examples will introduce  rudimentary game theory, an important mathematical basis for studying these topics. This experience will help children gain a deeper understanding of both concepts they encounter in the mainstream curriculum as well as extending their world to a whole new dimension of learning, understanding and solving problems through simulation. Students will be provided a list of resources they can use to continue using simulations to aid their learning beyond this course.

The course draws upon important research in the learning sciences from top organisations including Harvard Project Zero's "Understandings of Consequence" Project, Northwestern University's Learning Sciences Department, and the Santa Fe Institute.

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