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Teach Systems Thinking

What is systems
thinking? »

This page draws on materials developed at the 2010 Cutting Edge workshop on Complex Systems and the 2012 InTeGrate workshops on Teaching the Methods of Geoscience and Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences.

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System thinking is an important skill for students as they grapple with the complex challenges that lie at the intersection of Earth systems and human interactions. Topics such as climate change, energy, population dynamics and resource use benefit from a systems-based approach. Additional reasons to incorporate systems thinking into your teaching include:

  • Complex problems are multidimensional. 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.

Teaching Strategies and Example Classroom Activities

InTeGrate's Systems Thinking Module
These six units can be adapted to your course to help students boost their systems thinking skills. »
Strengthening Teaching of Systems Thinking in your Course
This is a set of recommendations used by InTeGrate authors as they developed materials for our teaching collection.

Several effective strategies for teaching systems thinking have been identified by Cutting Edge and InTeGrate workshop participants, including using:

Unit 1: Introduction to Modeling Dynamic Systems
Kirsten Menking, Vassar College; Louisa Bradtmiller, Macalester College; David Bice, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Unit 2: Modeling Population
Kirsten Menking, Vassar College; David Bice, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Unit 1: Foundational Concepts
Lisa Doner, Plymouth State University; Lorraine Motola, Metropolitan College of New York; Patricia Stapleton, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Unit 2: Application of Concepts to Case Studies
Patricia Stapleton, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Lisa Doner, Plymouth State University; Lorraine Motola, Metropolitan College of New York

Unit 3: Culmination of Module in Town Hall Meeting
Patricia Stapleton, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Lorraine Motola, Metropolitan College of New York; Lisa Doner, Plymouth State University

Unit 4: Oceans In Peril: Pressures on Ocean Ecosystems
MICHELLE KINZEL, Southwestern College; Astrid Schnetzer, North Carolina State University; Cara Thompson, Arizona State University at the West Campus

Unit 1: Ocean Introduction
MICHELLE KINZEL, Southwestern College; Astrid Schnetzer, North Carolina State University; Cara Thompson, Arizona State University at the West Campus

Unit 3: Energy Flows and Feedback Processes
Bob Mackay, Clark College; Allison Dunn, Worcester State University; Phil Resor, Wesleyan University

Unit 6: Capstone: A modern catastrophic volcanic eruption?
Bob Mackay, Clark College; Phil Resor, Wesleyan University; Allison Dunn, Worcester State University

Unit 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking – What is a System?
Karl Kreutz, University of Maine; Lisa Gilbert, Williams College; Deborah Gross, Carleton College

Browse the complete set of systems thinking activities »

Opportunities to Strengthen Systems Thinking in Your Classroom

Systems thinking is prevalent across the curriculum, especially with regard to sustainability issues. Even if you don't explicitly call it systems thinking, you can always make connections and point them out to your students. 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. In upper-level courses, you can use systems thinking to teach mathematics and quantitative reasoning. And you can always work with other faculty in your department to integrate systems thinking across your curriculum, or with faculty in other departments to integrate systems thinking across campus.

Resources for Teaching Systems Thinking