Connecting Undergraduate Biology Through Systems and Systems Thinking

Tammy Long
Associate Professor
Michigan State University

Connecting Undergraduate Biology Through Systems and Systems Thinking

NEED: Vision & Change (V&C) effectively winnowed the breadth of what could be taught in undergraduate biology to a manageable set of concepts and competencies. Among them, ‘systems’ is identified as a core concept essential for literacy in the life sciences. Although thinking in terms of systems is foundational across STEM disciplines, there is minimal guidance about objectives for systems learning, relevant strategies for assessing evidence of systems thinking, or instructional approaches that foster the competencies and conceptual knowledge necessary for reasoning about systems.

GUIDING QUESTION: Our work explores ‘systems and systems thinking (S&ST)’ as superordinate concepts with potential to unify priorities for teaching and learning in undergraduate biology. Biology is fundamentally a science of living systems. We therefore argue that viewing biology education through the lens of S&ST enables us to cohere biological content across topics and scales, and to better envisage relationships among concepts and competencies we aim for in biology learners.

OUTCOMES: This project proposes a Biology Systems Thinking (BST) Framework that identifies and organizes skills necessary for representing and reasoning about systems in undergraduate biology. The BST derives from decades of research on S&ST and builds from the authors’ research on model-based learning. The BST offers an integrated perspective about the concepts and competencies identified in V&C and provides practical scaffolds to support assessment design that engages students’ higher-level thinking skills. Outcomes of our work include: (a) an evidence-based BST framework for undergraduate biology education, (b) a portfolio of validity evidence that supports the BST’s contents and organization, (c) ST-aligned assessment templates conducive for a range of classroom contexts, and (d) professional development that enables instructors to become owners in the process of designing and authoring curricular materials. BROADER IMPACTS: This project advances biology education research by testing a framework that coheres major objectives for undergraduate biology education and leveraging transdisciplinary theories that promote discovery and innovation. An explicit aim of our work is to enable instructors to design and align instruction and assessments that can help students connect concepts and navigate the complexity of real-world biological systems. Project outcomes will broadly benefit STEM learning by engaging students in thinking that reaches beyond their capacity for recall, promotes integration of concepts across scales and content subdomains, and develops practical skills for reasoning about complex systems.


Jennifer Momsen, North Dakota State University; Elena Bray Speth, Saint Louis University; Sara Wyse, Bethel University