InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Systems Thinking > Unit 2: Picturing Complexity
Earth-focused Modules and Courses for the Undergraduate Classroom
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# Unit 2: Picturing Complexity

## Summary

This unit includes an opportunity for students to move from definitions into reading and creating a diagram of a complex system relevant to their course, and then to exploring the connections between the components in the system. An exercise is provided to help students identify complex systems and their component parts from the world around them. Students will draw and revise a systems diagram, including identifying measurable quantities in the system, and participate in a gallery walk. The unit ends with students constructing a system diagram from photographs they take, and reflecting on their process. Note that to carry out the activities described in this unit, groups of students will need large sheets of paper and markers, or whiteboard/chalkboard space, to create a diagram.

## Learning Goals

• Students will be able to draw and label the diagram for a system relevant to their course.
• Students will be able to identify quantitative information that can be obtained about complex systems as a precursor to generating quantitative models of systems.
• Students will identify and describe a system that they observe in the world around them.
• Students will evaluate how well their system represents the actual system, with attention paid to who generates knowledge about the various components of the system.

## Context for Use

The unit is intended for use at the beginning of any course or module for which systems thinking, in one way or another, is critical to the goals of the course or module. This lesson should occur early in the course, ideally in a class period shortly after Unit 1, or after key terminology about complex systems (such as source, sink, reservoir, flux) has been introduced. This unit is presented here in a way that could fit into a 50-minute class period, although it would also work broken into individual pieces and spread out across a few consecutive class periods. A homework assignment is provided. Instructors can tailor the activities and assignments to emphasize the aspects which are most relevant to their course.

## Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1. Brief Review of Complex System Terminology and Discussion of Steps for Drawing a Diagram of Any Complex System (10–15 min)

In Part 1, the instructor will lead a discussion in which students are asked to review vocabulary and concepts introduced previously about systems diagrams. This is meant to be a brief discussion, to help students retrieve ideas that were discussed previously in their course before asking them to work together to develop and revise the diagram of a course-relevant complex system.

To facilitate this discussion, a presentation is provided (How to Draw a System Diagram PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 846kB Sep11 16) or PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 721kB Sep11 16)) which goes through an example of the process of creating a system diagram, using the example of a heated room (with and without a thermostat). This presentation is meant to help the instructor accomplish three tasks:

1. Review the systems terminology that has been introduced previously (either through the glossary (Systems Thinking Glossary PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 93kB Jun21 16) or Word doc (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Dec5 14)) and other materials in Unit 1 or other ways).
2. Define a set of steps which can be followed in order to create a system diagram for any system of interest.
3. Mention that different authors will draw different system diagrams for the same system, emphasizing the details that matter to them.

If the instructor uses Unit 2 immediately after Unit 1, this portion of the unit can be compressed or omitted, at the instructor's discretion.

Part 2. Drawing and Revising a Diagram of a Complex System Related to The Course (20–25 min)

After initial discussion, students will gain more experience in creating a complex system diagram themselves. Students will:

• Work in groups to identify components, behaviors, and linkages within a system designated by their instructor.
• Identify areas in their diagram which could be rendered with more detail, and discuss the level of detail required for different uses/applications of the diagram.
• Create a system diagram with the level of detail needed to explore a topic of interest in their course.

The instructor should decide on a system that is relevant to the course and ask students to use this as the basis for the diagrams that they create, so that all students are working on the same system. Three examples are provided here (How to Label a System Diagram PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 789kB Oct17 16) or PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 823kB Oct17 16)) as examples for the instructor, from a variety of different disciplines: The Carbon Cycle, The Whale Pump, and The Cryosphere. If the instructor wishes to assign one of these systems, the information provided in the presentation goes through the steps students will be asked to carry out, and can provide a model for the level of detail students should achieve. Alternatively, the instructor could assign a different system and use the provided versions as examples for themselves or the students. Many other options of system diagrams are listed in a document in the "References and Resources" section of this page.

Students are given a handout describing this assignment (Draw a System Diagram PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 51kB Sep11 16) or Word doc (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Sep11 16)), a large Post-it type sheet on the wall and markers (or poster paper and tape, or whiteboard/chalkboard space), and work in groups of 3–5 to generate a diagram of a system. The instructor will provide some guidelines for drawing the system diagram, including the following:

• The fact that students will all diagram the same system, and their diagrams will not be identical.
• The amount of time allotted to this task, so that students can gauge the level of detail they can include. It is recommended that students spend no more than 10 minutes on this task, as the goal is not to explore every detail of the system but to generate a summary of it.
• The level of artistic detail expected. Students need to be given guidance about whether everything should be represented as boxes or whether components of the diagram should be represented more realistically.

Students next do a brief (5-minute) "gallery walk" where they look at all or a subset of the diagrams sketched by other groups. In a small class, they may look at all of the other groups' diagrams, while in a large class, they may only see a few. Either way is fine. The "Teaching Notes and Tips" section of this unit includes information about how to structure this active exercise. After looking at the diagrams created by other groups, students will reconvene with their groups at their own diagram and add to it anything that they saw in other groups' diagrams that they think is critical to include, but which they had missed (if resources allow, have the students add this new information using a different color). This should take no more than 5 minutes, and ideally less.

Students should take a picture of their revised diagram before moving on to Part 3. If feasible, the instructor should ask the students to upload their photographs to an online space (course management system, etc.) so that there is a permanent record of it.

Part 3. Labeling a Diagram of a System with Measurable Quantities (10 min)

To begin to transition from qualitative to quantitative representations in systems diagrams, in Part 3 of this unit students are asked to look at a system diagram with an eye toward:

• Identifying those components of the system which can be measured.
• Defining reasonable units for measurable quantities.
• Locating where there are quantitative relationships in their diagram that can be represented with equations.

This assignment is summarized in this student handout (Label a System Diagram PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 78kB Oct17 16) or Word doc (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Sep11 16)). Students will work in the same diagram-drawing groups to further label their diagrams. The three diagrams of complex systems mentioned above (The Carbon Cycle, The Whale Pump, and The Cryosphere) are annotated to indicate a portion of the items identified in the diagrams which can be measured, possible units, and which can be related with equations (How to Label a System Diagram PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 789kB Oct17 16) or PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 823kB Oct17 16)). The notes section of the PowerPoint version of this file includes information about the terminology and notation used, and suggests issues which can be topics of conversation for any diagram investigated by the class. The set of labels provided in this presentation is not comprehensive—many additional aspects of the system can be measured and can be represented quantitatively. If the instructor uses the provided examples instead of having the students label their own diagrams, the instructor should ask students to find a few more of each on the diagram, to emphasize this point.

Students should take a picture of their annotated diagram before leaving the class, and the instructor should collect and keep the posters. If feasible, the instructor should ask the students to upload their photographs to an online space (course management system, etc.) so that there is a permanent record of it.

Part 4. A Complex System in "The Real World" (Homework)

Part 4 of this unit includes a homework assignment that will allow the instructor to assess the students' facility with representing a complex system through a diagram. If the instructor prefers to use this assignment in the classroom, it can be done as a group or an individual assignment.

As a summative assessment, students are asked to take a series of ~8–10 photographs of a real system that they can observe on their campus/in their locale. This could include a restaurant/dining hall, traffic management at a busy intersection, irrigation of planted or crop areas, etc. They are asked to create an annotated photographic collage (electronic or on paper) in which they use their pictures and text to illustrate how their system works. If the instructor wishes to do this as an in-class activity, a set of images can be provided for students to use rather than having the students acquire their own images. This exercise asks students to practice working with the systems terminology that they have learned and also to explore the way that system diagrams are used to assemble knowledge. The questions they are asked should help them figure out that their diagrams are not perfect representations of the system, that their own knowledge, interests, and potential biases are at play when constructing a diagram, and that any area of a system diagram can be expanded with a greater level of detail, based on the knowledge of the person contributing to it.

Students should be asked to describe in writing and/or labels on their diagram the following aspects of their diagram:

1. The components of the diagram.
2. The connections between components of the diagram. Students should label their diagram with the systems terminology they have learned and identify portions of the diagram with measurable quantities or which could be represented with equations.
3. The areas of their diagram which they feel most secure about (i.e. which do a good job of representing what they are trying to represent).
4. The areas of their diagram which they feel least secure about (i.e. which do a poor job of representing what they are trying to represent or which they do not fully understand). There should be at least five specific questions identified in this section.
5. The type of knowledge they believe would be necessary to gain to be able to improve the areas of the diagram they are least secure about, and some thoughts about who generates this type of knowledge (i.e. geologist, chemist, political scientist, etc.).

In addition, students are specifically asked to reflect, in writing, on what they gain by picturing the system as a system rather than just a list of components or a single relationship.

• An example of a handout for the homework assignment is provided here ( or ).
• An example of a completed homework assignment is given here ( or ).
• A suggested rubric for assessment of student diagrams and answers is provided here ( or ).

## Teaching Notes and Tips

Gallery Walk: A gallery walk provides an opportunity for students to circulate through the room and look at the products of the other groups' efforts; in this unit, Part 2, the products are posters containing system diagrams. More information about Gallery Walk activities is available, although in this version of the activity, no questions are posted around the room—students instead are asked to look at and evaluate the components included by their peers as they evaluate the completeness of their own diagrams, providing them input for revision. If time is a constraint or if there is a large number of groups, each student in a group can be asked to look at three different diagrams from other groups, ensuring that the members of a group have sampled multiple other diagrams.

The homework assignment in Part 4 is optional, but including it provides students with an opportunity to create and work with a diagram for a system that they encounter in their everyday lives.

## Assessment

The homework assignment in Part 4 provides an opportunity to assess whether students are appropriately using terminology, identifying measurable quantities in a system diagram, and thinking about the various levels of abstraction that are included in these diagrams. A suggested rubric for assessment of student diagrams and answers is provided (

or as a ).

If students are meeting the "Acceptable" or "Exemplary" criteria in most of the categories, they have sufficient mastery of the ideas of systems diagrams to move ahead to a quantitative approach to complex systems, as presented in Unit 3.

## References and Resources

Relevant Images/Concepts within other InTeGrate Modules:

Other Systems Diagrams:

A non-comprehensive list of freely-available systems diagrams for a variety of geoscience-relevant systems is provided here (Examples of Systems Diagrams PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 18kB Aug1 24) or Word doc (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Aug1 24). The diagrams are presented at a variety of levels and can be used if the instructor wishes to provide students with a different diagram from those examples which are given here.

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