Fun demonstration of doing science with complex systems, like climate models

by Joe Archive on May 12, 2008

On the weekend I helped run the workshop described below at an event at MIT and it was a lot of fun. The event was a youth “summit” on the environment, and we used the exercise to talk about the difficulty of working out what parts of the climate (or climate models) were influenced by what other parts – although I imagine you could use this to explain almost any complex system – like biological systems or psychology – and the difficulties of observational science.br /br /br /blockquotebr /br / THE SYSTEMS ACTIVITY TO BE FACILITATED:br /br / Around six of the students [we had a small group and only used two] are selected to be scientists and are taken to some place where they will not hear your instructions to the rest of the group. Those six are going to try and determine what rules govern the motion of the system [created by the larger group of students]. The larger group of students is given the instructions that everyone in the group is to choose two other people in the group and position themselves equidistant between those two people (what equidistant means will have to be thoroughly explained to the students…typically some of them just don’t get it). Then the entire system group will have to practice this a bit before introducing the group of six scientist to the system, so keep the scientists away for as long as it takes. The trick for the system students is that each student has to choose and maintain their respective positions covertly. They cannot talk to the persons they’ve chosen, look at them or in anyway indicate who they’ve chosen, to the best of their ability, the entire time the activity is being run.br /br / Once you’ve introduced the scientists to the system, make sure the system is moving/functioning, and instruct the scientists that they are to try and determine what rule(s) govern the motions of this complex system.The objective is to have them explicitly state that each individual element of the system must maintain itself span style=”font-style: italic;”equidistan/spant between two other elements. They don’t necessarily have to guess that the system elements can’t indicate to their two object elements that they have been chosen, but that’s up to the facilitators of the activity.br / After a couple of minutes indicate to the scientists that they can get into the system and perform experiments if will help them determine the governing rules of motion of the system. At this point you may have to remind the system that they must continue to follow the rules…this may cause some physical contact issues, so remind all the students to be civil, but stay as true to the experiment as possible. To facilitate the scientist seeing other examples of how the rules apply. Verbally stop the system and tell every element to switch (you’ve explained ahead of time that switching means that everyone in the group picks a new pair to position themselves equidistant between). Then start the system over again.br /br / Okay, so the students probably won’t guess the rules. If they do great!br /br / If they don’t get the answer, without telling the scientists the rule(s), to tie this to climate change by having the facilitators modify the system behavior to demonstrate complex system behavior through modifying the motion of one of the elements, e.g. make one of the elements move in a more confined space.br /br / The point of this demonstration is for the system students to feel what a complex system is and the scientists students to experience what it is like trying to decipher all the rules governing a complex system, using crude tools (eyes and some touch), referring to understanding climate change as very similar (tools = coupled GCMs, observational analysis, proxy data etc.).br /br / It’s okay to stop the activity in the beginning to let the scientists ask the system questions, but explain to the system elements that they are supposed to answer the exact question asked…and not to help the scientists…because the questions are the key to science!!br /br //blockquote(This came from Tim Barnes at the NCAR/UCAR outreach office)br /br /The three of us (myself, a href=”http://www.mit.edu/%7Elback/”Larissa Back of MIT/a and a href=”http://www-as.harvard.edu/chemistry/trop/people.html”Amos Tai/a of Harvard) running the group joined in as elements and I think we had a lot of fun – our system developed some wild oscillations at one point because of positive feedbacks where people where following each other! One thing we added after a while was slowing down the response by having everyone count to five before they moved after someone they were responding to had finished moving – this helped expose the chain of causality and also seemed to make stable configurations easier to achieve.br /br /The two scientists did get quite close to the rule (with a little guidance) in the ~30 mins the exercise ran for.

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