Complex systems are pervasive in the world around us. Making sense of a complex system should require that a person construct a network of concepts and principles about some domain that represents key (often dynamic) phenomena and their interrelationships. This raises the question of how expert understanding of complex systems differs from novice understanding. In this study we examined individuals' representations of an aquatic system from the perspective of structural (elements of a system), behavioral (mechanisms), and functional aspects of a system. Structure-Behavior-Function (SBF) theory was used as a framework for analysis. The study included participants from middle school children to preservice teachers to aquarium experts. Individual interviews were conducted to elicit participants' mental models of aquaria. Their verbal responses and pictorial representations were analyzed using an SBF-based coding scheme. The results indicated that representations ranged from focusing on structures with minimal understanding of behaviors and functions to representations that included behaviors and functions. Novices' representations focused on perceptually available, static components of the system, whereas experts integrated structural, functional, and behavioral elements. This study suggests that the SBF framework can be one useful formalism for understanding complex systems. © 2003 Cognitive Science Society, Inc. All rights reserved.
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