Teach Systems Thinking

What is systems
thinking? »

This page draws on materials developed at the 2010 Cutting Edge workshop on Complex Systemsand the 2012 InTeGrate workshops on Teaching the Methods of Geoscience andSystems, 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 3: Simple Climate Models
Louisa Bradtmiller, Macalester College

Unit 6: Carbon Emissions Game
Gautam Sethi, Bard College

Unit 4: Daisyworld
Louisa Bradtmiller, Macalester College

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

Module 10: Food Systems
Steven Vanek, Pennsylvania State Univ-Penn St. Erie-Behrend Coll; Karl Zimmerer, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Module 1: Introduction
Steven Vanek, Pennsylvania State Univ-Penn St. Erie-Behrend Coll; Karl Zimmerer, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Module 9: Climate Change
Gigi Richard, Fort Lewis College

Unit 3: The Interconnected Nature of the Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, and Biosphere
Sam Donovan, BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium; LeeAnna Chapman, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Cailin Huyck Orr, Carleton College; Camille Holmgren, SUNY Buffalo State University; Rebecca Teed, Wright State University-Main Campus

Unit 1: Evidence and Impacts of Climate Change
Sandra Penny, Russell Sage College; Eric Leibensperger, Ithaca College

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

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