Welcome to the TCORE 112B Web site.
Introduction to Science
|Professor: George Mobus||Phone:||692-5894|
|Office:||Cherry Parkes (CP) 227|
|Hours:||MW 10:30-11:55am, or by appoint.|
||Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.
The Essence of Permaculture (Web Resource)
The Principles of Systems Science (Web Resource or Coursepack).
This course is about science and the scientific process of learning about how the world (and universe) works. It is an introduction to science as a way of thinking and discovering the rules of how things work, how things got to be what they are as we observe them today, and from both their current state and the rules we derive what things might be like in the future.
Traditionally education about science has been by students simply taking an introductory science course in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, or any number of disciplines where they learn the specifics of that discipline. Students are expected to pick up the bigger ideas about science simply from experiencing the concepts and practices within a specific discipline. The problem with this approach is that it puts more emphasis on the content of a specific science rather than a general understanding of the scientific enterprise as a whole. Science is a human activity aimed at understanding the whole universe, not just a particular category of phenomena within that universe. In this course we are going to take a very different approach that is meant to provide you with a “Big Picture” view of what science is, how it works, and what it does for us as a species and a collection of societies.
The approach taken in this course is to step back and take a look at what all sciences have in common, and this includes social sciences as well as the so-called “hard” sciences. The focus is on the process of inquiry, but from a particular vantage point. It turns out that all of human questioning originates from a deep awareness of a universal property of everything we encounter in the universe. That property can be called “systemness”. Everything that you can identify as an object or entity can be looked at as a system. Moreover, these objects and entities interact with one another to form larger-scale systems. For example every planet in our Solar System is a system in its own right. They all interact with the Sun (another system) and each other through gravitational attraction and various kinds of radiation to form the Solar System. There is inherent regularity in the nature of these interactions that help the system as a whole maintain its form and dynamic behavior over a very long duration. The sciences, particularly physics and astronomy, derived the basis of those regularities and have been able to use the “Laws” so derived to our great advantage.
The questions that early astronomers, and later physicists, asked about the planets and the sun started with a recognition of the systemic properties displayed in their observations. Even before they divined the structure and behavior of all the parts they knew that they were all part of a larger system because that is the nature of things in the universe. In very similar ways scientists in all fields formulate questions about why and how phenomena occur by a tacit understanding that the components of these phenomena are always parts of a system.
Science goes in two ways. It may start with the observation of a system from the outside, say for example, an organism. It then attempts to find out what is inside the system, what its components are, and how are they related to one another. This is called reductionist science — taking things apart to find out what is inside and how they work. The other way, as in the example of the Solar System, is to observe from inside a system, its parts and their interactions as the whole system behaves. Then the objective is to understand the whole from understanding the internal structure and dynamics. This is integrative science. It is the process that often leads us to grasp laws of nature. Another example of this kind of science is understanding our societies by understanding how the components (us and our cultures) work. To be certain, understanding societies is a much more daunting task than understanding the Solar System!
So the approach in this class is quite different than is standard. We will be examining the nature of Systems Science as an over-arching framework for all of the sciences, and, specifically, systems thinking, which is a more holistic way to look at science. Today very nearly all of the disciplinary sciences, hard and social alike, have branches called “Systems X”, such as systems biology, or systems ecology, or systems chemistry, or systems psychology! This is because scientists are coming to recognize the role of systems thinking and the property of systemness as fundamental to all that they do in their researches. They are also recognizing the inherent interdisciplinary quality of systems thinking. You cannot truly understand a biological system as merely a biological phenomenon. Systems science teaches us that the phenomenon has to be taken in context with its environment in order to be fully understood.
Principally, then, the main objective of this course is to introduce the student to systems science and systems thinking as a way to understand the big picture of science in general. Such thinking is a great starting place for going into one of the traditional disciplines.
One can go at learning systems science principles in a very abstract way, say through mathematics or computer modeling. After all I've just argued that everything is a system and if everything is then there must be some very abstract laws that apply. Or one can approach systems science more intuitively. This is because our very human nature is to see the world as systems. The problem is that our natural tendency is not sufficiently concrete enough to be useful in the modern world. Somewhere in between these extremes there is a way to approach systems science qualitatively, but explicit enough to be able to make it useful to anyone who does so. The method is to examine the principles of systems science, a set of abstract concepts, but with concrete examples of how they work in the real world.
There remains a problem with this approach, however, since many very fine examples come from the various sciences themselves. So unless one is already schooled in those sciences, it is questionable that the examples will be very useful. However, there is one area of life that almost everybody cares about and is accessible to anyone who wishes to have a good life. That is what is generally now called the sustainability of life styles. One quick example should suffice.
Where does your food come from? Well, for most of us in the developed world the answer is the grocery store. Next question: How confident are you that the food you need will always show up at the grocery store as expected? Probably most people just assume that it will and are very confident. But there is a ‘fly in the ointment’. Most of our foods travel very long distances to get to the grocery store after being processed or cleaned and that after being farmed in huge industrial grade operations requiring tons of artificial fertilizer and pesticides. And here is the fly: All of those processes depend on cheap fossil fuels in order to work and get your food to the grocery store as expected. But cheap fossil fuels are rapidly becoming not so cheap. The fact is that the world is using up its stocks of fossil fuels, especially oil, which is the basis for most of our transportation fuels and chemical feedstocks. This fact raises serious concerns for future food security given the way our current system works.
It turns out there is a really great example of the application of systems science to the real world problem of sustainable living situations (especially long-term food security) and that is called permaculture (for permanent culture). Permaculture is a demonstration of how the principles of systems science can be used to understand sustainability in general. And it is something that everyone can understand with or without a mathematical background. Specifically, permaculture is a science of sustainable living based on what scientists have learned in systems ecology applied to human communities.
There is an increasing awareness that true sustainability in our living arrangements cannot be achieved by the so-called business-as-usual (BAU) approaches to community design and industrial agriculture (food security). Permaculture (permanent culture) was developed in the 1970s as an alternative approach to living arrangements based on principles from systems ecology. Today it is gaining acknowledgement as a viable alternative, at least in principle, that goes well beyond the buzzword “green” in providing a principled approach to community and living standard maintenance that is in tune with the environment.
Systems science goes beyond the design of an ecologically sound living community. It is applicable to virtually everything we do. It can be used in the analysis and design of organizations as well as guiding our basic understanding of social and natural systems. In this course we will take a close look at the principles of systems science from a qualitative perspective and see how they are applied in permaculture, specifically, and other kinds of systems in general.
Students completing this seminar will be prepared to look at the world in a different, more holistic manner when they understand the nature of systemness. The principles of systems science are universally applicable to all endeavors. Students of systems science have found they are able to comprehend the basic ideas in fields far from their majors by seeing the commonality of systems principles. The transference of skills and knowledge between jobs and even careers is facilitated by grasping the systems nature of various domains of knowledge.
We will focus more on the qualitative aspects of systems science but we will demonstrate the relationship of mathematics and computer modeling with how systems scientists come to understand the systems they study. Students should have completed the basic algebra courses. Also having had a high school-level laboratory-based natural science course will help as background. All science terminology will be explained sufficiently that everyone should be able to follow the discussions.
The learning outcomes (given below in detail) will be two-fold. First the student will gain a broad and useful understanding of science in the large and through the lens of systems science see the commonalities among all sciences. Second the student will gain deeper appreciation of a critical application of systems science and systems thinking by taking a closer look at the science of permaculture. Both of these areas of knowledge can be immediately useful in helping the student toward achieving a sustainable future.
The course will involve a considerable amount of reading and writing each week. There will be a material preview presentation by the coordinator at the beginning of each week with the rest of the time being used to discuss the readings and exploring how the principles interrelate.
Basic math skills (algebra) and a lab-based science.
With this course students will:
Core Student Learning Outcomes include:
After completion of this course, students will be able to apply systems thinking in multiple domains of interest, including the ability to:
The course readings include a textbook by Donella Meadows who is recognized as an eminent systems scientist and thinker. This book is highly accessible to all college-age readers and provides a great overview of the systems approach to doing science. You will be expected to make steady progress in reading this book during the first half of the course as it will provide background for the activities we will do in the second half. A second major reading is from the Web site, The Essence of Permaculture, by David Holmgren. David was one of the founders of permaculture and conducts classes in the principles and methods of permaculture. Finally you will have access to the slides that I use in classes. Links to these are given below.
These readings will at first seem to be about different things! Your big objective in this course will be to integrate the information provided in these three sources (with my help) to see how the principles of systems science, systems thinking, and the scientific study of ecological systems apply to designing and managing a sustainable living situation.
We will be discussing subjects found in the book/Web site in classes as we try to find how they relate to one another. So keeping up on the reading is essential to getting all you can out of the classroom.
Grades will be based on the below activities and their assessment for quality. Participation counts for 20% of the grade. I will be keeping tabs on each person's participation in discussions and give special consideration to the raising of questions that generate good discussion. If you do not show up it will be hard to accumulate points.
Weekly In-class Exercises (groups of 3-4)
The first involves in-class exercises to be held on the first meeting day of each week. In these exercises small groups of three of four students will discuss a topic from the readings or previous lectures and then be given time to develop answers to a set of questions given by the professor. The sessions will take up the second hour of the class. For each session the group will write their names on the turn-in sheet with the answers they all have agreed upon. These discussion/quiz exercises will run from the second week through the 9th week (eight in all). They will be graded and all members of that group will get the same grade. Each week we will attempt to shuffle the groups so that everyone will have worked with everyone else by the end. Taken together these exercises will amount to 20% of the final grade.
Weekly Seminar Discussions (participation)
The second exercise will be done on the second day of class each week. Again in the second hour of class time the whole group will be engaged in a seminar-like session. This is where the professor will monitor your participation (20% of grade, remember). You will be expected to produce one of the following:
Project (a systems model - group of 3-4)
Another assessment component will be a team-based project and final report. The project will involve creating a systems model of some subsystem in a permaculture community. For example you might develop a model of the calories flowing from the gardens, fields, and orchards to the citizens in the community. There are a large number of subsystems to choose from. The model will consist of a systems dynamics diagram of the subsystem and a simple spreadsheet version to show how the model performs over time. There will be more information provided in the class. The team will write and present a final report during the last week of class before finals week. This component will represent 20% of the final grade. A grading rubric will be provided with the actual written assignment.
The midterm will cover terminology and basic concepts that students will have needed to master. It will be closed-book, short answer and multiple choice. This test is 15% of the final grade.
The final component is the final. This will be an open book, open notes essay exam during finals week. Grammar and spelling will not be strongly graded since this is a timed, hand written test. However, grievous errors will result in a downgrade of the work. What is important in this exam is a demonstration of your ability to identify the relevant principles of systems science and/or permaculture for a given question and then summarize those in your answers. Examples will be provided later in the quarter. The final is worth 25% of your final grade.
What is Science? What is Systems Science?
Sustainable Living and the Nature of Systems Thinking
Meadows: Introduction & Chapter 1
Holmgren: Read over the page titled: THE ESSENCE OF PERMACULTURE
In-class exercise based on reading
General class discussion: Science as an Approach to Inquiry
Concept of Sustainable Systems
|2||Overview of Systems Principles
General Systems Dynamics (Behavior)
Mobus: Review the slides Principles of Systems Science
Meadows: Chapter 2 through page 58
Holmgren: Principle 1: Observe & Interact
Class discussion: Stocks and Flows (text book) & Perm. Principle 1 and Systems Science Principles
|3||More Systems Principles (in-depth) and Systems Dynamics
Energy Flow in Systems
Mobus: Principle 4
Meadows: Chapter 2, page 58 to end
Holmgren: Principles 2 & 3: Catch & Store Energy; Obtain a Yield
Class discussion: Systems Principle 4 in greater detail.
|4||How Systems Can Be Self-Managing and Self-Sustaining The Principle of Feedback and Self-Regulation||
Mobus: Principles 7 & 8
Meadows: Chapter 3
Holmgren: Principle 4
Class discussion: Systems Principles 7 & 8 (Information and Cybernetics) in greater detail.
|5||Systems Models, Our Mental Models, & Computer Models
Mobus: Systems Principles 9 & 10
Meadows: Chapter 4
Holmgren: Principles 7 & 8
How to build a system model.
|6||How Systems Evolve and Adapt to Change||
Mobus: Principle 6
Holmgren: Principle 12
Meadows: Chapter 6
|7||Complexity of Organization and Behavior||
Mobus: Principle 5
Holmgren: Principles 10
Meadows: Chapter 4 (Review)
|8||When Things Go Wrong||
Mobus: Principle 5, Complexity — The Downside &
Principle 8.1, Things Can Go Wrong
Meadows: Chapter 5
Holmgren: Principle 9
Sustainability as a Problem in Systems Science
Biophysical Economics as Systems Science Applied to Social Systems
Mobus: Supplied Reading
Meadows: Chapter 7
Holmgren: Principle 6
|10||Systems Science as Science Writ Large||
Mobus: Supplied Reading
||No in-class exercise. Discussion and Review.|
Meadows, Donella (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.
Holmgren, David (2007). The Essence of Permaculture, http://www.holmgren.com.au/frameset.html?http://www.holmgren.com.au/html/Publications/Principles.html (click on “The Essence of Permaculture” link near bottom of the page.)
Mobus, George (2012). Principles of Systems Science, Coursepack, available at the Copy Center. (optional but recommended as we will be using these slides in a number of in-class exercises)
Wikipedia: Permaculture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture
Complete on-line book on permaculture by Bill Molison (one of the founders).
Connections, James Burke:
This is the first episode of a series that aired on PBS (from the BBC) back in 1978. For background see the Wikipedia article.
As dated as this might seem, the points Burke makes in this episode are even more relevant today. The whole series is about how humans, science, technology, economics, etc. form a densely interconnected web of relations, in other words how our world is a system that is evolving over time.
I saw this show when it first aired and it really hit home with me how understanding systemness and systems thinking is essential to understanding how the world works. Burke went on to produce several more series along similar lines, but this first one is essential for understanding the themes in later ones.
I'm only assigning the first episode but I hope you will recognize the value of this perspective and sample a few others. They combine history, psychology, invention, science, and the natural world in ways you have never seen in the usual educational setting. On Wed. we will have the in-class exercise as given in the syllabus, but we will also spend some time discussing Connections and what thoughts you have about the topic(s).