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Unit 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking – What is a System?

Lisa Gilbert (Williams College), Deborah Gross (Carleton College), and Karl Kreutz (University of Maine)

Summary

This unit introduces systems and systems thinking. The unit is easily adaptable to any course and includes an introduction of terminology, motivation for using systems thinking, and practice reading, as well as interpreting and evaluating systems diagrams. Note that an Internet connection and speakers are required to play the audio file in Part 3.

Learning Goals

  • Students will be able to define systems terminology (such as open and closed system, reservoir, flux, and feedback loop).
  • Students will be able to read and interpret simple systems diagrams.
  • Students will be able evaluate a given diagram's appropriateness for a written description of a system.

Context for Use

The unit is intended for use in a course or module for which systems thinking is critical to the goals of the course or module. The examples used are general enough to be used with nearly any course. This unit can stand alone or be used at any point during a course to help promote systems thinking.

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials for this introductory unit are included in the following PowerPoint: Introductory System Slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 82kB Oct11 16) (also available as a PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 523kB Oct11 16)). An Internet connection is needed to access the radio piece in Part 3.

Part 1. Knowledge surveys and introduction to systems thinking (5–10 min)

The instructor begins class with a knowledge survey about systems diagrams. Students will complete the same survey at the start and end of class, which will allow them (and you, the instructor) to reflect on their progress.

a) Slides 1–3: Begin class with a knowledge survey

Then, the instructor gives students a short introduction to systems thinking.

b) Slide 4: Prompt students to work individually to describe a bathtub in 2–4 complete sentences.

Part 2. Motivation for studying systems thinking and The Bathtub System (10 min)

Slides 5–16: The instructor defines systems terms visually using a bathtub as a system and then shows examples of why systems thinking is important.

Part 3. Example of a system, using systems terminology (20 min)

a) Slide 17: The instructor plays the first two minutes of the Minnesota Public Radio piece linked within the PowerPoint. The instructor asks students to list influences on climate. Then, at slide 18, with a partner, students should sort their list of influences into fluxes, reservoirs, and feedbacks. To access audio file:

b) Slide 19: The instructor prompts students to work with a partner to answer the following on the Student Handout for Evaluating a System Diagram Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 97kB Jul15 15) (also available as a PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 69kB Jul5 16)):

  • Does the diagram fully represent the complexity of the system described by the speaker? If not, add to the diagram.

c) Slide 20–21: The instructor leads a discussion about possible answers to prompt.

Part 4. Expanding the simple bathtub (10–15 min)

Slide 22: The instructor prompts students to draw a diagram of their bathtub at home and use systems vocabulary to explain in a paragraph how it works. How is your bathtub different from the simple open system bathtub we imagined in class? Using systems vocabulary, write a paragraph to explain the differences. The instructor leads a class discussion and wrap-up.

Slide 23: Repeat the knowledge survey.

End of class assessment

Teaching Notes and Tips

Terminology

Many of these terms, including feedback loops, have equivalents in economics, math, and other fields. We have chosen the terms we believe are most common in the natural sciences and concur with Kastens (2010)' Earth and Mind blog post on her choice of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops (in place of positive and negative feedback loops). For instructor reference and to give to students, many systems terms are defined here: Systems Thinking Glossary (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Dec5 14); also available as a PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 93kB Jun21 16)).

Knowledge Surveys

The start/end of class assessments can be done with any size class in less than a minute. The assessments can be done on paper or with clickers, but it is important for students to reflect on both their final confidence rating and the difference between their initial and final ratings. If students only write their ratings in their notes, ask for a show of hands about how many people went up one level or more.

Video alternative to audio

Should an instructor prefer to use a video in place of the MPR audio, a similar-length video provides a reasonable alternative: How Wildfires Affect Climate YouTube video from Michigan Engineering. The instructor would need to slightly alter the student handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 97kB Jul15 15) and PowerPoint file for alignment with the video.

Assessment

References and Resources

Systems Thinking Glossary (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Dec5 14)

Additional background on Earth Systems Thinking: Complex Earth Systems, from Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences

Relevant Images/Concepts within other InTeGrate Modules:

Other Systems Diagrams:

This document Examples of Systems Diagrams (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Sep29 16) (also available as a PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 99kB Sep29 16)) includes a non-comprehensive list of freely-available systems diagrams for a variety of geoscience-relevant systems. The diagrams are presented at a variety of levels and are provided in case the instructor wishes to provide students with a diagram for a class assignment, or for other uses on a case-by-case basis.

Dynamic Visualization:

Many freely-available tools for creating systems diagrams, or causal loop diagrams, include the option to animate, such as LOOPY. An example of how to introduce LOOPY is explained in Visualizing Systems .

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »