Teach Systems Thinking
Effective Strategies for Teaching Systems Thinking
Promising Pedagogical Approaches for Teaching Complex Systems presents several strategies for teaching systems thinking, including using computer modeling, an inquiry-based approach, and role-playing. These materials are from the 2010 On the Cutting Edge workshop.
- Concept maps are a helpful way of seeing components of a system and information flows among components.
- See more about developing concept maps and an example activity, Using concept mapping to experientially introduce systems thinking.
- Using case studies as a way of exploring systems thinking
- Ethanol production (read about Bentley University's ethanol module)
- Effects on climate and trade due to melting sea ice in the Northwest Passage.
- View case study assignments about earthquakes, landslides, coastal management, and Superfund sites
- See more about pedagogies that use cases such as Interactive Case-based Learning, Teaching with the Case Method, and Using Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction.
- STELLA is an easy-to-use modeling program that allows students to explore quantitative relationships. Faculty at the 2012 workshop found that:
- Using STELLA, quantitative relationships are applied rather than abstract and students can grasp the sign and the scale of these relationships without having to do complex math. This can help with math phobia.
- Working with STELLA provides a means to teach quantitatively, and in a way that can be applied to specific questions and processes.
- STELLA can be useful for introducing systems thinking to undergraduates and non-science majors (The use of STELLA as an experiment with freshman and sophomores resulted in the surprising outcome that students found it to be an empowering experience.)
- STELLA can be used in a scaffolded manner. For example, it can be used to introduce systems thinking and to prepare students for a more quantitative approach.
- Using Aldo Leopold's 'Odyssey', students can trace the journey of 'x' as the systems it encounters during its journey (such as the carbon cycle, trophic levels, hydrologic systems), having students diagram these systems as represented in Leopold's work.
- Read more about teaching complex systems with STELLA with links to activities such as Modeling the oceanic thermohaline circulation or Energy Balance Climate Model.
Teaching about systems thinking and complex systems were explored at a 2010 On the Cutting Edge workshop, which resulted in the creation of a set of web pages about Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences. This module contains descriptions of promising pedagogies, a collection of activities that teach complex systems and strategies for assessing student understanding.
Using an Earth System Approach is a guide for earth science educators to design courses and present concepts from a systems perspective.
Why Teach Systems Thinking?
- Complex problems are multi-dimensional. Both the problem and the solutions cut across multiple disciplines and "spheres."
- Students tend to prefer simplified, black and white explanations which may be only partially accurate. A systems approach can introduce complexity in an elegant, conceptual way that students can appreciate.
- Systems thinking goes hand-in-hand with interdisciplinary teaching and learning.
- Systems thinking offers a means to blend natural systems with human, political, cultural or economic systems.
- Encouraging students to think from a systems point of view can encourage creative problem solving outside the usual discipline-based channels.
- A systems approach is useful for examining interdependencies. This is especially important for societal challenges where many variables are changing, which affects other variables. The interactions of these variables are key to predicting the future. This is all the more important when changes have the potential to trigger positive feedback mechanisms.
- Making informed decisions, as individuals and a society, requires an understanding of the complexity of the systems that make up our planet.
Opportunities to Strengthen Systems Thinking in Your Classroom
Systems thinking is prevalent across the curriculum, especially with regard to sustainability issues. Below are some suggested opportunities for strengthening systems thinking compiled by 2012 Systems, Society, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop participants.
- Make connections and point them out to your students, even if you don't explicitly call it systems thinking.
- Simple examples of systems (predator-prey relationships; ice-albedo feedback) can be taught in general education courses to underscore the prevalence of systems in everyday life.
- Find ways to help your students experience systems firsthand.
- Use systems thinking to teach mathematics and quantitative reasoning in your classes.
- Work with other faculty in your department to integrate systems thinking across your curriculum.
- Work with faculty in other departments to integrate systems thinking across campus.
Resources for Teaching Systems Thinking
See how other faculty are teaching systems thinking with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.
- Systems Thinking & System Dynamics - This page introduces several key concepts important to systems thinking and system dynamics that can be incorporated into an introductory geoscience course. The page links to further materials on teaching equilibrium, stability and behavior over time, feedback loops, and a Daisy World example. There is also an accompanying student activity.
- Experiencing Systemic Thinking - This activity is intended to assist students in understanding social and natural systems through observing and commenting upon a natural system and a social system.
- The Earth and Mind blog has many posts related to systems thinking.
- Using Concept Mapping to Experientially Introduce Systems Thinking - Meghann Jarchow, University of South Dakota
- Exploring Easter Island Economics with Excel by Morris Coats, Nicholls State University
- Exploring Sustainability through Water Cycle Connectionsby Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
- How Can Models Be Used To Study Climate Change? by Ben Fackler-Adams, Skagit Valley College
- Demonstrating why Sustainability is Complex, an essay by Cailin Huyck Orr, Washington State University - Pullman