Earth systems increase in complexity, diversity, and interconnectedness with time, driven by tectonic/solar energy that keeps the systems far from equilibrium. The evolution of Earth systems is facilitated by three evolutionary mechanisms: elaboration, fractionation, and self-organization, that share universality features not found in more familiar equilibrium systems. These features include: 1. evolution to sensitive dependent critical states, 2. avalanches of changes following power law distributions with fractal organization, and 3. dynamic behaviour as strange attractors that often exhibit bi-stable behaviour. We propose a new approach to teaching Earth systems theory, where theoretical underpinnings of evolutionary mechanisms are introduced, followed by explorations of how the mechanisms interact to integrate the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere into a unitary evolutionary system. We incorporate conceptual and computer-based interactive models (included here as educational resources) within our lesson plans that illustrate a hierarchy of principles and experimental outcomes for evolutionary mechanisms. Application of this educational framework requires explicating complex systems mechanisms and their interactions, exploring their applicability to Earth systems, and imbedding them in high school was well as college introductory and upper level Earth Science classrooms to put all Earth systems on an evolutionary theoretical foundation.
All evolutionary systems are complex systems in the technical sense of that term. Biological evolution is a complex system, but, until recently has not been thought of or modelled as a complex system. Likewise, fractionating evolution of petrographic systems using AFM or phase diagrams, or sediment evolution using QFL or Q/FL/Matrix diagrams has been a mainstay of the geosciences. We have been talking about evolution all along, but because we have modelled these as equilibrium systems there has been a conceptual block to thinking of them in any terms other than descent to equilibrium—which according to the definitions of evolution is not really evolution.
It is the recognition that all evolutionary systems are non-equilibrium systems and evolve to complexity with a whole new, integrated set of properties and behaviors that has the potential to transform our teaching of evolutionary Earth systems to a new paradigm. But, this also requires that we introduce our students to chaos\complex systems principles and models because these systems possess properties that are very different from the equilibrium thinking most of them have been trained in so far.
These papers and web sites provide the rationalle and rubrics for teaching evolutionary systems as chaos/complex systems. We can introduce these ideas in as little as 3 - 5 50 minute classes, depending on how many examples we want to explore. But, with these new concepts students will be able to think about real world systems in ways that will yield more understanding and insight.