May 3, 2017

Wanted – Single natural system seeks industrious human system from which to couple

David Miles

It’s hard for a natural system to find a good partner in today’s world; there are so many options. Even when a natural and human system do manage to couple, their relationship is often troubled and murky at best with so many questions left unanswered. Our class found this to be true as we tried to define a coupled human-natural system to study. In class, we presented condensed research proposals defining our coupled system of choice and potential methods to study it.

Understanding what comprises a coupled system and the various methods used to study them is a major theme of our class. In the broadest sense, a coupled system is an integrated system in which people interact with natural components (Liu et. al., 2007). This definition sounds simple enough, but the various connections within the coupled system are often more complicated than they initially seem. Looking at coupled systems through a systems dynamics lens reveals feedback loops, thresholds, and time lags which can make studying these systems very difficult (Liu et. al., 2007). Below is Jack Liu, author of some of our course’s foundational material, discussing the concept of telecoupling in coupled systems

Not surprisingly, as a class we found it difficult to bring enough pieces of a natural and/or human system together to be considered “coupled.” Most of us come from a natural science background and this was made apparent during our presentations. Our biases resulted in most proposals being based in the natural sciences with a human or cultural aspect shoehorned in, or mentioned without a mechanism to systematically study it. The opposite was also true for a few of us, with the human system fleshed out well and the natural side lacking. Most of these shortcomings stem from our familiarity with our own fields of research. We took our existing research ideas and tried to modify them to fit into a coupled systems approach. As a class, we learned an important lesson: we must approach the research as a coupled system from the ground up, which starts by defining each system and their interactions before moving onto methods or procedures.

Krystal giving her presentation to the class. This was a great exercise in public speaking, which will become important as our careers progress.

Krystal giving her presentation to the class. This was a great exercise in public speaking, which will become important as our careers progress.

That’s not to say the presentations were ineffective. Most of our proposals were extensions of work done for a previous class activity, our elevator speeches. All of our speeches featured the ABT (And…But…Therefore) technique of delivering a narrative. Some of us used our knowledge of this technique for our proposals. The ABT framework is effective at delivering information in a way that hold an audience’s attention.

The class also excelled at presenting their ideas through conceptual diagrams, another technique we learned this semester. From earlier lectures and readings, we know that a conceptual diagram is made up of symbols used to generate self-explanatory, self-contained figures that represent synthesized concepts and knowledge (Dennison et. al., 2007). The diagrams, and their more mature older sibling the conceptual model, incorporate empirical data when available, otherwise they aim to capture key ideas and qualitative information into a formalized framework that can be later refined and quantified (Jackson et. al. 2000). Thanks to the wonderful IAN symbols library and a little Microsoft Paint/Adobe Illustrator wizardry, we had all the tools necessary to create beautiful representations of the systems we proposed to study.

Krystal’s awesome diagram of an urban water system. Arrows represent the flow of water throughout the system.

Krystal’s awesome diagram of an urban water system. Arrows represent the flow of water throughout the system.

Suzi's awesome diagram of professional scientists and citizen scientists and their data collection efforts. Citizen scientists help to fill gaps in data and increase the breadth and variety of data available to water quality researchers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Suzi’s awesome diagram of professional scientists and citizen scientists and their data collection efforts. Citizen scientists help to fill gaps in data and increase the breadth and variety of data available to water quality researchers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Arguably the most important aspect of our proposal is where we try to link the coupled system we want to study to a broader context. The very nature of coupled systems lends itself to broader contexts. By contextualizing coupled systems within contemporary issues and other relevant fields of study one can draw the attention of potential funding sources. For example, during Kelly’s presentation on biosolid usage and dispersal, she created urgency by framing the issue within the problem of phosphorous as a non-renewable resource. Research on the use of biosolids, and by association phosphorous, now takes on a new meaning: methods to recycle a critical non-renewable resource. This can go a long way towards getting funded.

Overall, everyone did a great job on their mock proposals. I think everyone would agree that conceptualizing and designing a research project based on a coupled human-natural system is a tall order, even for the most seasoned scientists among us.



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About the author
This blog was produced by graduate students in the Coupled Human and Natural Systems course, part of the Marine, Environmental and Estuarine Science (MEES) program at the University System of Maryland. Bill Dennison, Klaus Hubacek, Michael Paolisso, and Christina Prell are teaching the course as a 'flipped' classroom so that classtime is spent discussing lectures and readings which are summarized in this blog series.
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Filed under: Science Communication — Tags: , , — MEES Coupled Human and Natural Systems Student @ 11:00 am


  1. Nice blog, David. I agree that it was challenging to present a research proposal on a coupled system. In my opinion, this was especially challenging because the definition of a coupled system is rather vague and variable, as we discovered in our first week of class when we struggled to come up with a definition. I remember having to write the blog for that discussion! In term of this project, I was wondering to what extent must human and natural elements be interacting before they are considered “coupled”? Most of the presenters included human and natural elements in their presentations, but these elements were more tightly intertwined in some proposals than in others. So where is the line? When does an association, or relationship become a “coupling”? I think it depends on the research context and who you ask…

    Comment by Suzanne Spitzer — May 3, 2017 @ 11:04 am

  2. I love the title, David!

    Because coupled human and natural systems are inherently complicated, it has been difficult applying these concepts to our final project. For me, one of the most challenging aspects is grasping the tools needed to measure the human system (i.e. cultural consensus and cultural models) because of my non-social science background. This is definitely a learning process for all of us, and I think we will learn a lot from this exercise. Bravo to all my classmates who presented during the first week!

    Comment by Noelle O. — May 3, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

  3. This title made me laugh. Very creative 🙂 In fact, this whole blog was witty and I really enjoyed reading it.
    This was a very accurate description of what we struggled and succeeded with during this first round of presentation. It seems that we have, for the most part, mastered (sort-of) conceptual diagrams. I know for myself and a few others, the coupling of the two systems was definitely the trickiest park. The difficulty that I have come across is that one of the reasons people encourage studying coupled systems is that the coupling and reactions are not linear. For me, this lack of linearity in relationships makes it VERY hard for me to figure out where to even start. I think that this presentation and questioning exercise really brought the whole class full circle for me. It forced me to reevaluate WHY we study coupled systems, instead of trying to make something work as a coupled system that did n ot exactly fit the bill. I think you successfully put all of these feelings and struggles into this blog. Great job.

    Comment by Rachel E — May 3, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

  4. This is a wonderful blog David. I think you were able to really capture the the complex nature of trying to study a coupled human and natural system. I think for me the hardest part was making sure my description of why and how I wanted to study the coupled human and natural system was easily understood. Making sure that I frame my proposal in a way that is not too broad is important and making sure I define the current problems with the system and why it needs to be studied is important as well. I agree with Suzi that the definition of a coupled system can be rather vague and the descriptions of different examples and how they are coupled systems, for me, only make it harder to pin down a good definition and the extent of the interactions needed for a system to be defined as a coupled human and natural system. This proposal is very challenging and I look forward to hearing about our other classmate’s proposal’s this week.

    Comment by Krystal Yhap — May 3, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

  5. I agree with Suzi. These coupled human system proposal it is challenging. Using social science methodology it is the hardest task for me. My brain is trained to be more of an environmental sciences and social processes are new to me. There are so many different techniques in sociology. It is an interesting yet challenging task in an area I don’t particularly feel like an “expert”.

    Comment by W.Cruz — May 3, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

  6. Talk about a catchy title! haha. Great blog, David, on a not-so-straightforward topic… I think that proposal writing is one of the hardest tasks we have in academia (let alone a research proposal on complex coupled human and natural systems!). The greatest struggle for me personally with proposals is trying to find the appropriate scope and scale of the research project. With respect to coupled systems, in particular, I find it especially difficult to know where to draw the system boundaries – the more I think about the problem, the more connections I find between different components within and between systems, and eventually, EVERYTHING seems to be interconnected… or as David put it, “the various connections within the coupled system are often more complicated than they initially seem.” Feedback from the class during the proposal-writing process is definitely a valuable resource that can help us better formulate our ideas so that they are clear and easily understood.

    Comment by V Leitold — May 3, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Great job, David. I agree a lot with Suzi’s comment on how particularly challenging it is to determine what your coupled systems are, and when they are coupled. For my topic from the elevator speech, I talked about detecting supercell thunderstorms over the ocean and how they can affect ships at sea. When beginning to work on this proposal though, I spent a lot of time thinking about how it could be a coupled system. Individual ships at sea don’t have much effect on the storms, they avoid them and react to the natural system playing out around them. While humans may have an effect on weather patterns and severe weather events through our actions globally and with climate change, to look at that for my proposal seemed much larger than the scope of my previous research. I ended up going with a different subject entirely to avoid describing and working on such a tricky research topic.

    Comment by Killian F — May 4, 2017 @ 10:05 am

  8. Love the title! Going through the course, we go over different components that link human and natural systems together. However, when we go to apply our own research projects and knowledge, we find it hard to draw in both components from the natural and human side and integrate them. It’s important to see both components in our own individual project because it demonstrates the transdisciplinary nature of the environment. If we are to effectively try and reach a point where natural and human systems are as integrated as we discussed in the first few classes, we need to start from the bottom with the basis of our research. This has been a very difficult task for many of us, myself included.

    Comment by Natalie Yee — May 4, 2017 @ 11:53 am

  9. The coupled systems approach seemed most coherent to me when it was very localized, as in case studies describing and connecting the human and natural components of a lagoon or a watershed or a forest or a city or whatever. I am unsure about how to cleanly fit questions encompassing larger geographic scales or greater abstraction into the coupled system framework (or my understanding of it anyways). Many of the approaches we talked about over the course of the class connect human and natural systems or investigate some component of related systems, but the coupled systems approach (e.g. Liu et al 2007) seems to really emphasize naming the specific components in a bounded system and modeling the relationships between the human pieces and natural world pieces. In their paper every system is a geographically bounded not-very-large area where various phenomena are explained by relating them to other phenomena (e.g. conservation effort -> protected area subsidies -> household splitting -> increased fuelwood harvesting and land development -> degradation of panda habitat). How can the coupled systems approach be used to look at processes more generally? When can the dynamics of a particular case study be used to help explain or predict something about a different system? The authors in Liu et al. use their examples to illustrate some general properties (nonlinearity, surprises, feedbacks, etc.) but in their conclusion they recognize the difficulty in extrapolating between cases. And while some of the approaches we discussed seemed to fit larger scales (like network analysis of trading relationships) it seems difficult to capture the richness and complexity highlighted in the Liu case studies using these methods.

    So what would a coupled human-natural systems approach to studying something bigger or more conceptual or abstracted look like? Some off-the-cuff examples that seem to involve both pieces: regional sulfur cycling, peasant land dispossession, exertion of Native treaty rights in North America, the effects of US military activities on food production and distribution worldwide, distribution and valuation of public parks in the US…If I sat down to sketch out how I would describe these phenomena as coupled systems, I would feel compelled to start with conceptual diagrams of the human parts and the natural parts and try to draw lines and arrows between their components. But such exercises at these scales seem like could easily become cartoonishly simplified or overwhelmingly detailed, or easily lose track of the fundamental and interesting couplings, or find that the couplings are less important than other system attributes.

    I think that was an issue some presenters ran into. When is research investigating the coupling between systems in a meaningful and interesting way, and when is research looking into phenomena that just happen to involve human and natural actors but where focus on the coupling would be clunky or not insightful?

    Comment by Alec Armstrong — May 4, 2017 @ 11:59 am

  10. Yes, very nice title that certainly captures a theme from the presentations and discussions! Rachel’s comment resonated with me, about how refining a question/topic for the proposal is really an iterative process between developing the question and thinking about the motivation for the project. Michael and Bill did a nice job during class making this linkage by asking us to make sure we had clearly defined problems that the proposals are addressing. This helps form a logical chain of inference between the knowledge to be gained from the research and how it would help solve the problem which is the motivation. I also agree with Veronika that defining system boundaries is one of the hardest things to do for coupled human and natural systems, and it is often difficult to to think about what the actual feedback mechanisms are that link the two together. Ecosystem services and systems dynamics are just a ways to think about those linkages, but there are social scientists that would argue that those concepts aren’t necessarily applicable or useful for social scientists – I couldn’t help but think of this article about “why resilience is unappealing to social scientists” ( Nice summary David!

    Comment by Kelly H — May 4, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

  11. Like everyone else has said, I love the title David! I agree with Noelle, when crafting my proposal presentation this week, I really struggled with the social measuring tools for my study, because I have never been exposed to them before. I think it’s a good opportunity to present this proposal in front of others who have had similar issues, and believe we all will benefit from the feedback given when we are writing our final proposals (and any future proposals in general!).

    Comment by Rebecca Wenker — May 4, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

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