In this course we approach learning in a way that is new to some of you.

Note: This is the most effective thing I have developed for moving students toward self-actualizing ways of learning. I wrote it at Oregon 30 years ago as “Last Words...”, but the students told me they wished I had given it to them at the beginning of the course; hence a change in name and timing. All students in all courses I have taught since then has gotten a copy on the first day, and I encourage them frequently to read and discuss it. I also give it to faculty at development workshops here and elsewhere.

Lee Gass

In this course we approach learning in a way that is new to some of you. Rather than studying isolated facts, or elements, we study elements as they relate to other elements. We see groups of related elements as wholes, which we describe as systems.

As I sense your growing readiness to consider wholes I introduce more complexity and illustrate more of the dynamic properties of systems. These properties all involve interactions between elements, called functional interactions because they refer to the ways elements influence the function of other elements. Elements are independent if they do not influence each other, dependent if they are controlled in some way by other elements, and interdependent if they are mutually influential. Systems that exhibit a large proportion of interdependent interactions are called interdependent systems. Biological systems in general are highly interdependent, and I illustrate ones that are especially so.

To study systems is to study change. Elements change in response to each other and whole systems change in response to external conditions. In biology, we see examples of both kinds of change on a wide range of time scales from biochemical (millions of events per second) to evolutionary (many generations per discernable change). On the time scale of an academic year I see the very interesting and important example of the elements of your understanding changing as you integrate them with other elements, and I see your system of understanding change as you use it in new ways.

I want you to use your system of understanding to explore the concept of interdependence. Some of this exploration will be review for you but hopefully much of it will be new. One way to do this is to review ways that elements of what you have learned interact with other elements and to discover new ways that they interact. One of the worst ways is to simply review the elements without effort to integrate them into logical systems of thought.

Systematically and repeatedly review each of the systems we study. Discover its system properties. Explore the functional relationships between its elements and watch the system change in response to changes that you impose in your imagination. Predict changes that should occur in response to given changes in conditions and then work out the details that will test the validity of your predictions over wide ranges. In each case, pursue your testing until you become aware of the limits of your understanding. Describe these limits as precisely as you can, and then find out precisely what else you would have to know in order to extend them.

After you have thoroughly explored each system we have studied, learn to view it as an element of a larger system. Integrate systems in this way until you are able to clearly see the interdependent system properties of all the things you have larned. Again make predictions, test them, and specify the new information you will need to expand your system of understanding them. When you have done all these things you will have created your "model of biology", and as it changes with your experience it will serve you for the rest of your life.

Please make a serious effort to study in the way I have suggested. I sincerely believe that the best way to study something old is to create something new from it. I will try hard to reinforce your efforts.