Teach Systems ThinkingWhat is systems
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.
Teaching Strategies and Example Classroom Activities
These six units can be adapted to your course to help students boost their systems thinking skills. »
Several effective strategies for teaching systems thinking have been identified by Cutting Edge and InTeGrate workshop participants, including using:
- Computer modeling including Stella
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.
- Inquiry using multiple representations
- Concept maps Learn about developing concept maps and an example activity: Using concept mapping to experientially introduce systems thinking.
- Case studies as a way of exploring systems thinking
Sue DeBari, Western Washington University
How Can Models Be Used To Study Climate Change?
Ben Fackler-Adams, Skagit Valley College
Analysis of trends in global oil reserves, production, and consumption
Scott Cummings, Kenyon College
Exploring sustainability through water cycle connections
Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Exploring Easter Island Economics with Excel
Morris Coats, Nicholls State University
Using concept mapping to experientially introduce systems thinking
Meghann Jarchow, University of South Dakota
5. Passive Designs
Randolph Chambers, College of William and Mary
6. Energy from and to the Earth
Randolph Chambers, College of William and Mary
4. Creating Electricity from Light
Benjamin Cuker, Hampton University
11. Composting Toilets
Maurice Crawford, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore; Benjamin Cuker, Hampton University
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
- Watch the recording of the Teaching Systems Thinking Webinar
- Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences includes teaching activities, assessment strategies, and more.
- Using an Earth System Approach is a guide for earth science educators to design courses and present concepts from a systems perspective.
- Systems Thinking & System Dynamics introduces several key concepts important to systems thinking and system dynamics that can be incorporated into an introductory geoscience course.
- Experiencing Systemic Thinking in an activity 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.
- The Earth and Mind II special volume has a section about teaching systems, which includes 7 papers about aspects of teaching systems thinking in the geosciences, including complex systems, weather systems, geodynamic systems, modeling, and more.
- How Geoscientists Think and Learn Kastens, K. et al, (2009), How Geoscientists Think and Learn, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(31), 265.
- Box Diagrams to Assess Students' Systems Thinking about the Rock, Water and Carbon Cycles Sibley D. W., et al, Journal of Geoscience Education, v 55, no 2, p 138.
- Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update - by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis L. Meadows.
- Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System - by Donella Meadows. This article illustrates how a systems approach can be used to create societal change.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows. Chelsea Green Publishing. This book describes how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life
- Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson.
- The video The Man Who Stopped the Desert provides a good example of how complex systems operate.
- Climate Interactive has a series of training videos on systems thinking called The Climate Leader
- Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A primer (D. Wright Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Harte, J. (1988). Consider a Spherical Cow: A course in environmental problem solving. Sausalito, CA: University Science Books.