Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Dauer and Dauer International Journal of STEM Education (2016) 3:13


© 2016 The Author(s). Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


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.