Fostering Systems Thinking in Your Students

Next Webinar

Incorporating Environmental Data-Driven Inquiry and Exploration in Your Course
Thursday, March 30th
12:00 pm PT | 1:00 pm MT | 2:00 pm CT | 3:00 pm ET

Wednesday, March 22nd

9:00 am PT | 10:00 am MT | 11:00 am CT | 12:00 pm ET

Presenters: Lisa Gilbert (Williams College) and Karl Kreutz (University of Maine)

This webinar is part of a series supporting teaching with InTeGrate principles, using InTeGrate-developed and curated materials as tools.


Systems thinking can help students analyze complex systems and it is well-suited to teaching about Earth in a societal context. Systems thinking is prevalent across the curriculum, especially with regard to sustainability issues. Lisa Gilbert, Systems Thinking module co-author, will introduce systems thinking, provide an approach to building students' systems thinking skills, and showcase a systems thinking example that can be used in any course. Karl Kreutz, Systems Thinking module co-author, will discuss systems modeling and feedback systems. In addition, he will provide an example of a feedback system using Arctic sea ice. The webinar will include 30 minutes of presentations and 25 minutes of discussion. Participants are encouraged to both ask questions of the presenters and discuss their own experiences regarding systems thinking for their discipline or context.


At the end of this webinar, participants will have:

  • examples of systems thinking assignments to incorporate into your course
  • strategies to help students develop their systems thinking skills
  • greater familiarity with InTeGrate principles and materials
  • new colleagues engaged in this work


Time - 9:00 am PT | 10:00 am MT | 11:00 am CT | 12:00 pm ET
- 1 hour
Format - Online web presentation via Adobe Connect web conference software with questions and discussion.
Go to the webinar technology page for information on using Adobe Connect.
Detailed instructions for joining the webinar will be emailed to registered participants one day prior to the webinar.

Registration is now closed.

Preparation - There is no advance preparation required for this webinar.

Please email Rory McFadden ( if you have any questions about this event.


Lisa Gilbert, Geoscience and Williams-Mystic, Williams College

Karl Kreutz, School of Earth and Climate Sciences, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine


Fostering Systems Thinking in Your Students (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 12.2MB May30 17)

1) Welcome and introductory remarks - John McDaris, SERC staff

2) Systems Thinking – Lisa Gilbert

  • Prompt: What does systems thinking mean to you?
  • Introduction to systems and systems thinking
  • Using knowledge surveys to assess systems thinking

3) Modeling and feedback in a system – Lisa Gilbert

  • Using systems modeling to contrast conditions that produce equilibrium and non-equilibrium behavior
  • Exploring the effects of negative and positive feedback on system behavior
  • Using systems model to interpret Arctic sea ice data
  • Assessments

4) Systems Thinking in the InTeGrate modules examples:

  • Systems Thinking (entire module)
  • A Growing Concern: Sustaining Soil Resources through Local Decision Making (Unit 5)
  • The Wicked Problem of Global Food Security (Unit 2)
  • Earth's Thermostat (Units 3 and 6)

5) Reflections by participants

  • Prompt: How do you incorporate systems thinking in your course?
6) Questions and synthetic remarks

The convener will reflect on the chat provide a synthetic remark. The chat and final remarks will be discussed further in the InTeGrate discussion thread. This online interest group is aimed at providing you with a platform for continuing discussion and exchanging ideas with your new colleagues about systems thinking, as well as broader InTeGrate principles that will continue to be discussed throughout the webinar series.

Prompt: "What does systems thinking mean to you?"

Abstract box models...

Making connections between the Earths 'spheres'.

Systems thinking means an integrated view of a particular problem.

movement of materials/energy between spheres

A whole system approach

Interconnectedness and feedback of earth systems

Seeing connections between several concepts

making connections between processes, feedback systems


interconnections and feedbacks

what amplifies what?

large-scale view of how earth processes work and are interconnected

Thinking about things/science incorporating multiple disciplines.

Understanding mechanisms of interconnected processes in space and time

A specific discipline that incorporates a holistic approach and takes into account long time periods, time lags and a specific tool set to approach issues.

Thinking about how an ecosystem is interconnected.

seeing the interdependent nature of dynamic systems.

Thinking of all the connected elements that combine to create a whole

All the processes and components interacting and involved in Earth's spheres. Can be used to help make a decision about a socioscientific issue.

making connection between what students are learning in different classes

Connections related to the interactions of various parts that make up the whole

involves the STEM and Societal

approaching studying the earth through the interconnections of all of the different parts of the earth

Prompt: "Reinforcing feedback loops underlie many environmental problems. What are some examples?"

melting ice in oceans

High speed wobbles on a skateboard

methane release due to climate change

rock cycle

Ice Albedo

albedo and warming

melting of Arctic ice reduces albedo

melting of arctic sea ice

nitrogen pollution in waterways

CO2 concentration


ice melyexposes dark surfaces incrases heat incrases ice melt

unprecedented sea ice decline

Loss of ice on the Arctic ocean

losing snow/ice increases albedo, which increases melting

addition of groin into coastal system, which disrupts sediment flux

global warming and co2 emissions

albedo and ice coverage

climate: warming leads to permafrost thaw leads to methane release leads to more warming

loss of albedo from polar ice and global warming


N fertilizer overuse.

neutral bouyancy of model magma chamber ascent in crust

heat is from outside the system and not accounted for in the loop.


pesticide use destabilizing ecosystem requiring more pesticides

losing bees and effect on ecosystem


meander growth in rivers

soil degredation

population growth relative to environmental problems

reinforcing: industrial ag, ancient aquifer use

herbicide resistance in ag

Ocean acidification

feedback on a guitar

Prompt: "What else would you add to the (simple 3-element diagram) shown on the screen?"

biology - insect adaptations


various causes of wildfires




smoke -> clouds -> reflect sunlight


release of CO2

decreased rH, increased ET, dry t-storms


decrease in water table drying soil causes more plant death

wildfires aren't necessarily bad, decreased rainfall in certain areas, command and control of fires

atmospheric circulation


temporal variations in temperature, precipitation patterns

Wendi J. W. Williams: available fuel changes real-time

Arctic ice melting increases methane release heating atmosphere more


major air masses

scale quite a jump from wildfires in MN to global circulation

solar flux?

plant stress increases plant disease

human settlement patterns

decreased insolation at surface

big jump, but think about dust from Africa appearing in US particulate matter...

Prompt: "Give examples of simple Inflow>Reservoir>Outflow systems that you could have students sketch, photograph."

bank account!

galcier mass balance

biofuel production

aquifer recharge and use

discharge in a river

grocery store shelves

Fish bowl

students in and out of buildings

population of bunnies over time

learning and knowledge

dog food bowl



students in and out of undergradaute school

# of people in a restaurant over an evening

household water or electrical use.


Prompt: "How do you teach systems thinking? Course title and approach:"

Intro to Earth Systems in Intro Physical Geology

rock re-cylce includeing other spheres (bio, atmo, hydro) in Geology 106

Intro to Enviro Science: energy system, electrical grid

LEED Lab; buildings as a system

environmental science (intro): population ecology

water cycle/hydrosphere

Dynamic Earth, first time teaching this fall

Trish: sketching an ecosystem and labeling varied components (e.g. biosphere/atmosphere/geosphere/hydrosphere) and linking them

Working with summer research students on how to teach interconnectedness to middle school students and public

water cycle and residence time in geology/oceanography

Sustainability of Food Systems: A Life Cycle Analysis Perspective, mapping the global pork trade

NS 103 Sustainability and Systems use STELLA with students. Teach them causal loop diagrams.

Intro En Sci - CO2 sources and sinks

Environmental Chemistry. appraoch = use generated diagrams to illustrate connections

geology and earth science: how many aspects of the class can relate back to and fit in with plate tectonics throughout the semester

Climate Change, Use simple computer climate models

Nutrient Transformations; thinkng about nutrient movements between spheres, climate change

Water in Society: water cycle and nitrate pollution in Iowa

annual cycle of CO2 variation in atm in meteorology

Oceanography - several options, ranging from atmospheric to coastal geomorph to ecosystems/fisheries pressures

Intro to Geo-106 Rock Cycle and Bowen's Reaction Series

socio-hydrological systems

GS 108 Food Webs

Intro geography - human/cultural systems

Weakly! I am constantly emphasizing how everything in oceanography is connected and that we can't think about seawater chemistry, marine sediment distribution and sea surface productivity in an isolated fashion. They influence one another. But I do not do it eloquently as I see you have done here.

World Food Issues - upper level non-majors course; start semester with fintroduction of food systems (conventional/industria/ vs. agroecology/tradiational

Feedback in loss of Arctic Sea ice in environmental science; CO2 and temperature in geology and environmental classes, rates of weathering and CO¬2 content in the atmosphere

Intro to geology: Electic motor/generator in car to illustrate geodynamo and Earth's magnetic field. A systems diagram would improve my explantation.

Proces from mining to plastics to water bottles then trash in the oceans

I have students write about hydraulic fracturing and include biology geologyl hydrology, politics, etc

environmenttal science: how population growth is integrated into environemntal problems - Iink the concepts with pollution, energy, waste disposal, food production/pest issues, etc back to population growth

Natural Science 115

Air and water pollution

Prompt: "Other questions?"

How long does this approach take in the classroom? (Ans: part of 4-6 classes spread through a semester.)

Are there a variety of examples in the integrate units? (Ans: yes, see slides)

How complex is TOO complex? Given your classroom experience. (Ans: with systems diagrams, let their imaginations run wild, so they will see how complicated the world really is. For systems modeling, need to start simply.)

Many of my students include the system name into the system - hard to get across the idea that the "bathtub" should not be a component in their diagram. Also, many students are stuck on a linear sequence with only hierarchical branches, and no networks.

How are system diagrams different than concept maps? (Ans: Systems diagrams show flow of energy, matter, etc. connecting reservoirs. Also called causal loops. Concept map is a more general term for diagrams that show the relationship between concepts, and can be useful for helping students learn to organize their knowledge.)

What is the response of your students to your systems approach? (Ans: it is now the students' favorite part.)

Do you ask the students to make decisions based on the system diagrams? (Ans: she hasn't so far, but likes the idea a lot.)

6) Opportunities for further interaction – Rory McFadden

7) Webinar Evaluation


Click to watch the webinar screencast (MP4 Video 566.6MB Mar22 17).

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