Visualizing Systems

Lisa Gilbert, Williams College
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Summary

This activity introduces students to systems thinking visualization with a free online tool, Loopy.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Context

Audience

This activity is intended for any undergraduate course, introductory through upper level, in any field. I use the activity in my intermediate-level course in oceanography. I have also used the activity to introduce systems thinking to graduate students and professionals.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The activity can be completed to introduce systems thinking without prior mastery of any skills or concepts. However, internet access is required to use the free online visualization tool Loopy (http://ncase.me/loopy).

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is meant to be used as part of a lecture or lab period. The content is adaptable to instructor needs. As shown, the simple "System A" begins with just two elements: oil spill and shrimp, because I use the activity in my oceanography course during a class on oil spills and trophic cascades. However, an instructor should use whatever fits the class period. See the "Teaching Notes and Tips" section for other examples.

I use the activity after I have introduced the vocabulary of systems thinking with Unit 1 of the InTeGrate module, "Systems Thinking." Alternatively, there is an optional slide (slide 5) if this is the first use of systems thinking in a course.

For the last part of the activity ("Design your own model"), I ask my students to pick something relevant to their semester-long research project. After completing this activity, some realize they may not be collecting all the data they need to understand their system of interest! Depending on the project, students then move on to quantitative models using Excel or STELLA or MATLAB.

Goals

Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will first modify a simple systems visualization and then create a more complex systems visualization of their chosing.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students must evaluate, modify, and develop simulations of systems.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students learn a visual programming tool and collaborate in pairs.

Description and Teaching Materials

Total time: 20-40 minutes

Powerpoint file for Visualizing Systems with Loopy Activity (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 16MB Nov19 18)

1.Introduction and motivation (1 minute; slides 1 & 2 in Powerpoint file for Visualizing Systems with Loopy Activity (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 16MB Nov19 18)): Why use systems thinking? To address complex environmental problems, we need to approach them holistically, not just one piece at a time. Today's goal: use a visualization tool for systems thinking.

(Assessment: Optional knowledge survey clicker question, pre-activity)

2. Inquiry (5 minutes; slide 3): Give the students a simple model to play with (http://bit.ly/2iB5Ef4) and only very simple instructions "Press play and start by increasing one thing. What happens? Play around!". The model can be anything at all, but don't make it too complicated. Here is an example I use in my oceanography course, on the day we are discussing oil spills. Students each have their own laptop, but collaboration is the norm in my classroom, so they automatically begin interacting with neighbor as they work – either to ask questions or just to share what they found.

3. Discussion (4 minutes; slide 4): Ask the students what they discovered and as they report out, I am simultaneously modifying the original model to show everyone visually what happened. Usually it comes out that some students 1) changed the amount of forcing and 2) moved the reservoirs around or added arrows which changed rates, and sometimes 3) add feedbacks and 4) add reservoirs and interactions. If systems terminology hasn't been introduced previously, here is a good time to do it.

(Optional 5 minutes; slide 5) Use if systems terminology has not previously introduced. Feedback loops: http://bit.ly/2o0hqQV - also known as reinforcing and stabilizing feedback loops. List reservoirs. Discuss: What happens if you add another + arrow to the first loop? What does the adding of a + arrow represent? Usually a system can't be defined by two reservoirs connected by two fluxes. Should these two be connected? How? You'd probably want to add more to make the system more realistic.

4. Modify System A (8 minutes; slides 6 & 7) "Is the system complete? What do you think is missing? Add something and run the model again." I quickly do this on the screen, and change the sign of the interaction so they see it. Here students really get creative and the simple models quickly take all sorts of directions. After 10 minutes, I ask students to email me their models by copying and pasting the URL.

Report out modified systems (2 minutes; slides 8, 9, & 10). Use the included examples or replace those with your own students' models, which they should have just emailed to you.)

5. Design a new model (10 minutes or homework; slide 11). This could be anything, depending on context. It's up the the instructor about whether to give specific guidance or leave it open-ended: both options can work. In my class, I ask students to pick something relevant to their semester-long research project. In creating the visualization, students realize they may not be collecting all the data they need to answer their research question! Depending on the project, students follow this visualization activity by creating their own quantitative models using Excel or STELLA or MATLAB.

(Assessment rubric is on the slide.)

6. Summary (2 minutes; slide 12). Return to original motivation and summarize details of goal achieved. You used Loopy, a visualization tool for systems thinking, to:
  • Modify a simple model
  • Create your own model
  • Review/learn systems terminology
(Assessment: Optional knowledge survey clicker question, post-activity)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The content of this activity is minimal: it is meant to help students start visualizing systems. Instructors should use whatever "System A" fits their needs. My simple "System A" begins with just two elements: oil spill and shrimp, because I use the activity in my oceanography course during a class on oil spills and trophic cascades. Alternatives include generic feedback loops (http://bit.ly/2o0hqQV), fossil fuel burning and ocean temperatures (http://bit.ly/2zUQcPb), drought and soil erosion (http://bit.ly/2hgYXLq) or a model of your design (http://ncase.me/loopy) instead.

For an in-person class, add additional time if you haven't already worked out the technical difficulties associated with having a whole class of students on computers at once. For an online class, the powerpoint slides can be shared directly; instruct students to view in presentation mode so they can see the animated gifs.

Alternatively, when developing systems thinking over a full semester (highly recommended), I have used this activity after completing Units 1-5 of the Systems Thinking module. This activity using Loopy provides students with an interactive opportunity to test out diagrams they have made and motivation to make their STELLA (or Excel or MATLAB) models more complex.

Assessment

Design your own model. As given to the students on slide 11, full credit for their own model if:
1. The model accurately represents the chosen system.
2. The interactions are all the correct sign.
3. The model includes at least one feedback loop, correctly labeled as reinforcing or stabilizing.

Meta-cognition. The pre- and post-activity Knowledge Surveys (slides 2 and 12) give you and the student their self-assessment of learning and take less than a minute to complete. Instructors can (a) load the questions into clicker software, such as iClicker (https://www.iclicker.com/) or Poll Everywhere (http://polleverywhere.com) or (b) distribute on slips of paper.

References and Resources

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