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Tackling complexity in science education

We asked experts in a variety of STEM disciplines about their area of work and what skills they consider the most important for IB science students to acquire. Here, Brad Bass, the Associate Executive Director for the Foundation for Student Science and Technology in Ontario, Canada shares his thoughts.


Tell us about your area of work

I work in two related but distinct areas. For over twenty years, I have been interested in the area of complexity and understanding surprises in environmental, medical and social issues. To tackle questions of complexity, I have constructed a computer program that has become known as COBWEB (Complexity and Organized Behaviour Within Environmental Bounds). Hundreds of students have used this software to build models over a range of systems from the synapse to settlements. After ignoring the idea for so many years, I have once again become interested in General Systems Theory, as this work echoes its central thesis. Much of my time is currently devoted to the new policy for limiting phosphorus loads into Lake Erie. These loads are the trigger for both toxic cyanobacterial blooms and coastal blooms of Cladophora, a nuisance algae with severe ecological and economic consequences. My recent contribution have been in the area of economic analysis and science synthesis, and the socio-scientific puzzles surrounding this issue still continue to fascinate and frustrate myself and many colleagues. This is a great example of complexity and surprise in the environment.

What is the most important skill that you think senior IB science students should have by the end of their studies?

I would like them to understand that events can unfold in surprising and unexpected ways. So that as they assume positions of leadership, they can be better prepared for the unexpected. This requires an understanding and experience with the concept of attractors, how multiple attractors can emerge in a system and experience with the analysis of said attractors. These concepts are integral to systems thinking, and a conceptual background in systems thinking provides a core set of ideas to address questions across many different areas.

You will be taking part in the IB’s first Science Symposium, what is the key area of focus for your presentation?

I will be building on my own years of work in complexity, the role of attractors in systems, and how concepts from the area of complexity can be integrated into the study of different systems. In order to do this, I will use both traditional as well as interactive modes of communication, but I don’t want to reveal too much as the audience should experience some degree of surprise.

In October 2016, we welcomed experts from a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to join us at our first IB Science Symposium. With expertise in areas like genetics, plastics and the circular economy, tackling complexity, and communications, we expect discussions will be broad and engaging. The symposium aimed to explore essential science skills and major themes in science education. Watch out for our student reporter’s account of the event. How do you think the future of science education will look in the next 50 years?