A framework for understanding the characteristics of complexity in biology

Joseph Dauer, Jenny Dauer

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Understanding the functioning of natural systems is not easy, although there is general agreement that understanding complex systems is an important goal for science education. Defining what makes a natural system complex will assist in identifying gaps in research on student reasoning about systems. The goal of this commentary is to propose a framework that explicitly defines the ways in which biological systems are complex and to discuss the potential relevance of these complexity dimensions to conducting research on student reasoning about complexity in biology classrooms. We use an engineering framework for dimensions of complexity and discuss how this framework may also be applied to biological systems, using gene expression as an example. We group dimensions of this framework into components, functional relationships among components, processes, manifestations, and interpretations within biological systems. We explain four steps that discipline-based education researchers can use to apply these dimensions to explore student reasoning about complex biological systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number13
JournalInternational Journal of STEM Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Biological systems
  • Complexity
  • Post-secondary
  • Systems thinking
  • Undergraduate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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