Planning Meeting for a National Initiative on Complex Systems in K-16 Education


Organizers: Jim Kaput, Sheldon White, Uri Wilensky, Michael Jacobson,Yaneer Bar-Yam

June 18 - 20, 1999, MIT Endicott House

CONTEXT

1. The Starting Point: Profound Shifts in Mathematics, Science and their Roles in Organizing Human Experience

The integration of ideas from many disciplines into the study of complex systems has, in recent years, generated excitement within the scientific community as well as in the general public. The conceptual shift from reductionist disciplinary strategies of inquiry to integrative cross disciplinary and unified descriptions of systemic phenomena has had profound impacts on our understanding of environmental, social, economic, medical, biological, and physical aspects of our world. Because of the relevance of these ideas to daily life, the popular and semi-popular scientific literature has seen an explosion of books and articles about these new concepts.

Conceptually, these new ideas reflect a change in perspective about our world which emphasizes both the limits of predictability as well as the possibility of understanding indirect consequences of actions taken, both positive and negative, through modeling the interdependence of our world. For example, the role of competitive selection in understanding biological evolution has given up much of its centrality to the complementary role of interdependence and co-evolution in ecosystems with emergent patterns formed by the dynamics of self-organization. Similarly, interdependence and self-organization in social systems now informs corporate managers thinking about their employees as well as the relationships between corporations, who then seek synergistic alliances rather than a competitive edge. Medical researchers are beginning to refocus on both the interdependent biological systems and the psycho-social context of an individual as an integrated system. Mathematical modeling and visually compelling computer based simulations of physical, biological and social systems and their interdependent, nonlinear, statistical, multiscale, dynamic nature are central to the new concepts that are being developed.

2. Our Response: To Conceptualize a Long Term National Agenda

We propose to develop a long term national agenda for incorporating these profoundly important new ideas of complexity, dynamical systems modeling of nonlinear phenomena and related ideas such as emergence, chaos, fractal descriptions, into the mainstream educational experience of American citizens. The effort begins with two conferences, an invitational planning meeting this spring and a larger public national conference in Washington intended to set the public agenda for the initiative. Our planning necessarily involves distinct communities of scholars, scientists and educators who bring diverse experiences, insights and perspectives to our large task. This process involves learning how Complex Systems can provide new unity and coherence to learning about our worlds thereby countering historical trends towards narrow specialization, how its ideas, techniques and perspectives can be made learnable through the major institutions charged with education (primarily schools, but also museums and media), how the processes of "idea transfer" from cutting-edge science to school curricula and practice may be enhanced, and what kinds of strategies and programs should be devised to carry the initiative forward.

The planning requires drawing implications based on very concrete information regarding who has done what and how in Education. It also requires considering such broader questions as how Complex Systems may itself provide insights and strategies directly applicable to our effort, how a society's educational forms may be shaped by the larger influences of its epistemological assumptions and its technologies, especially its representational and communication technologies, and how this complex of influences changes over time. It is important to emphasize that complex systems concepts are relevant to both curricular issues as well as to the design of innovation in education itself.

3. Preliminary Work Leading to the Planning Meeting

The International Conference on Complex Systems, October, 1998, had a special session on education and complex systems. This meeting included five presentations on the topic of education in complex systems. The interactions that resulted from this meeting have nucleated the current plan for a National Initiative in this area.

The organizing committee consists of Jim Kaput, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Uri Wilensky, Michael Jacobson, and Sheldon White. The activity is being coordinated through the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). The New England Complex Systems Institute was established by faculty of New England area academic institutions to develop and promote multi-disciplinary, and multi-institutional collaborations for research and education in complex systems.

During the late winter/spring of 1999, the organizing committee decided that two conferences were needed, one invitational planning meeting and a second larger public conference in the Washington, DC area. We contacted potential attendees and made arrangements for the planning meeting. Invitations for the planning meeting were made by direct contact from the members of the organizing committee based on lists generated by the committee and other invitees (each initial invitee was asked to suggest a second person). We note that by word of mouth, interest from individuals involved in complex systems research has already led to European and Japanese interest in the outcome of these meetings.

4. Dates, Location and Purpose of the Planning Meeting

The planning meeting will be held June 18-20, 1999 at the MIT Endicott house near Boston, MA. This is a working meeting to develop understandings and strategies, and prepare documents that will be the basis of a public conference in the Washington, D.C. area. We expect that this second conference will involve a combination of invitations to leaders likely to be influential in refining and executing the proposed national agenda, and open invitations to scientists, scholars and educators. The contributors will include internationally respected scientists, scholars and educators chosen with the assistance of the participants of the planning meeting. It will define the need for an initiative, lay out the conceptual framework for the initiative both in terms of the sciences and in terms of education, and suggest specific institutional and programmatic vehicles for the execution of the initiative.

5. Working Structure, and Expected Outcomes of the Planning Meeting

The planning meeting is designed to draft the documents that will serve to guide the development of the above-described national initiative - to incorporate complex systems into the mainstream educational experience of American citizens, and to exploit complex systems thinking to design the initiative.

Pre-Meeting Activities

Certain local invitees to the planning meeting will be asked to bring specific artifacts regarding prior or ongoing work. All will be requested to supply a bio-paragraph and an appropriate url to reduce time needed for introductions at the meeting --- including urls for slides of relevant presentations, so we can view virtual presentations. We will ask all participants to provide brief responses to issue-questions in advance of the meeting and will engage them in a brief dialogue in the two weeks before the meeting --- to prime their thinking and to help define the issue-groups for the meeting.

Working Meeting Structure

As a working meeting, the bulk of the time will be spent in issue-focused groups with specific assignments rather than listening to plenary lectures. The group assignments will be designed to produce the outcomes described below. See the tentative agenda below.

Outcomes of the Meeting

By the end of the meeting, we expect explicit outlines of different aspects of the conceptual frameworks that describe the need for the initiative, the challenges to be met, and programmatic responses. The meeting will also produce candidate lists of participants in the public meeting and their roles (including participation in a program committee and list of sponsors for the public conference), and assignments for commissioned concept papers to be written in the summer following the meeting. These papers will serve as the foundation for the materials promulgated in association with the public conference. The papers will include suggestions for public policy, institutional action, and specific programs to support research and development that would carry out the agenda. In addition, at least one paper will summarize prior and ongoing educational work in Complex Systems and System Dynamics. Paper authors may include people not attending the planning meeting.

Finally, as a result of the planning meeting, the organizers will have a practical sense of how the larger public meeting will be organized, what its defining parameters will be, who will actually run it, its costs, and its funding sources.

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