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Systems – the Science of Everything

Why should I take this Trinity Elective?

Humanity faces a growing number of ‘wicked problems’, from pandemics to climate change to threats to democracy. It is clear that the solutions to these problems will not come from any one discipline, acting in isolation, but rather from a multi-disciplinary focus on the general principles of systems. From organisms to corporations, ecologies to economies, neural networks to social networks, there are shared dynamics, abstract mechanisms, and emergent functions that arise through the interaction and organisation of elements, whether those elements are cells, transistors, people, or corporations.
The aim of this module is to explore those dynamics, to recognise commonalities and deep correspondences between seemingly diverse phenomena, to introduce you to the meta-science of systems, and to promote interdisciplinary or even supradisciplinary thinking. Ideas will be presented conceptually, with examples of convergence across diverse areas, including: genetics, computer science, business, economics, neuroscience, engineering, ecology, biochemistry, physics, evolution, psychology, medicine, climatology, and sociology.

What will I learn?

  • You will be introduced to systems theories and concepts with general applicability to phenomena across disciplines;
  • You will develop systems modelling skills to enable multi-disciplinary qualitative and quantitative analyses for theory building and problem solving;
  • You will develop increased competency in key skills for the 21st century including critical thinking, complex problem solving, and communication.

What will I do?

  • You will engage in a mixture of online activities, face-to-face discussion sessions with lecturers from diverse disciplines, independent study and group work with fellow students to learn about and explore the nature of systems.
  • You will use the intuitive, user-friendly NetLogo software platform to model and visualise the systems phenomena we will be exploring. No prior programming experience or mathematical expertise is required.

How will this be delivered?

We will employ a blended approach to teaching, with preparatory assigned reading and brief introductory lectures recorded and provided to the students ahead of each session, giving an overview of the topic at hand. Students will engage with online discussion boards prior to face-to-face sessions to promote engagement with the material and each other. Building on the contributions from students, lecturers will then provide more context from their own disciplines on that topic in a face-to-face format, which will be followed by group discussions.
All students will engage with NetLogo in groups to develop competence with this platform and visualise various kinds of dynamics as the course proceeds. From week to week, different groups will engage more deeply with one particular topic and prepare a presentation to the class, exploring and illustrating the dynamics of that topic in detail.

How will this be assessed?

  • Engagement (20%). Twenty percent of the grade will be reserved for the teaching assistants assigned to each group to assess each student’s active engagement over the course of the module.
  • Group work and presentation (40%). Each group will be assigned a topic (such as network theory, chaotic systems, evolutionary algorithms) and will generate and explore a simulation of the dynamics of such a system in NetLogo. Each group will make a 15-minute presentation to the whole class, demonstrating the simulation, highlighting the nature of its dynamics under different configurations, and commenting briefly on the relevance of the underlying principles to phenomena in their own disciplines or societal challenges generally. The documentation that students produce in NetLogo for these simulations (usually a one-page ReadMe text) will also be considered in the assessment. In addition, each student will prepare a one-page reflection on the group project, discussing what they learned and commenting on their own contribution as well as on other members’ contribution and the group dynamics overall. These will be taken into account in adjusting group grades for each individual.
  • Individual reflective essay (40%) Each student will individually write a final essay, reflecting on the concepts they have learned and applying them to some topic not included in the course materials. This might take the form of choosing one or several of the systems principles from the course and examining how they apply to phenomena in their own discipline; examining systems principles in relation to some global challenge; writing a mini-grant proposal that would apply a systems approach to some research problem; considering the sociology and dynamics of interdisciplinary research itself from a systems point of view; or some other topic (agreed with the teaching assistants) where students feel that systems principles provide an alternative perspective or a deeper understanding of the dynamics at work. This essay will also include a personal reflection on the student’s learning process and outcomes and how these may be developed and enhanced in the future.

Who can take this Trinity Elective?

  • This Elective is open to students from all disciplines, with the diversity of the class being one of the key elements in highlighting the transdisciplinary nature of the concepts we’ll be exploring.

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