Activity 10: Feedback Loops Applied

Cameron Weiner - Undergraduate - Middlebury College,

Lisa Gilbert -Professor of Geosciences and Marine Science - Williams-Mystic,

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Students apply the vocabulary and concepts from the Activity 9: Feedback Loop Introduction to assess and create earth science feedback loops with the LOOPY online modeling program. (Optional) The students then engage in a discussion of the limitations of the LOOPY program to create feedback loop diagrams.

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This activity is intended for a middle school science course. Materials presented here are designed to be implemented in a remote learning environment, either as part of an entirely online or hybrid course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need background information on systems thinking vocabulary and feedback loops (reservoir, flow, equilibrium/nonequilibrium or stable/unstable).

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is designed to be taught following Activity 9: Feedback Loop introduction to apply feedback loops to course relevant material. This activity is additionally best taught in conjunction with the Systems Thinking vocabulary Activity 1 and the equilibrium experiment Activity 8 (the instructor can pick and choose the vocabulary elements from these activities).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students apply feedback loop vocabulary and concepts to earth science systems.
  • Students assess earth science system feedback loops.
  • Students create earth science system feedback loops.
  • (Optional) Students discuss the limitations of modeling feedback loops with LOOPY.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials



Activity Description (total time: 20-30 min)


Part 1 - Applying Feedback Loops to Earth Science Systems(20 min)

Students complete Student Handout Activity 10, applying the feedback loop vocabulary and concepts from Activity 9 to the following feedback loop examples:

  1. Plastic Bottle Use Feedback Loop: This LOOPY shows the reinforcing feedback loop of people demanding plastic bottles, companies making plastic bottles for people to purchase, companies selling plastic bottles, and people purchasing, using, and throwing those bottles away.
  2. Thermohaline Ocean Current Feedback Loop: This LOOPY shows the balancing ocean temperature regulation feedback loop of warm surface water flowing to the poles, cooling, freezing and sinking, and cool deep ocean currents bringing water back towards the equator, and warming and rising. The background information provided to students from this YouTube video
  3. Students create their own LOOPY model of the Hadley cell or the mantle convection balancing feedback loop. The background information provided to students fromthis YouTube video (same as in C above).

(Optional) Part 2 - LOOPY Limitations Discussion(10 minutes)

As students create their own feedback loops on LOOPY (Part D of the Student Handout), they may become frustrated that they cannot create their feedback loop model exactly how they would like to or the model they make may not represent the feedback loop system perfectly.

The instructor can share their screen and present the discussion prompts using the Discussion Activity 10 Powerpoint with discussion prompts and/or provide students with the Discussion Notes Activity 10 Google Doc which contains the prompts and space for notes.

Slide 1: Assessing the limitations of LOOPY

Slide 2//Discussion Question 1 (5 min): How did LOOPY help you create your feedback loop?

Slide 3//Discussion Question 2 (5 min): How did LOOPY make it difficult to create your feedback loop?

Alternatively: A question about the limitations of the loopy diagrams students created could also be added to the student handout instead of completing a class discussion:

  • What are the limitations of LOOPY? (i.e. How did LOOPY make creating your feedback loop challenging?)

Alternatively: Activity 7 provides students with the framework to assess the limitations of a systems diagram (like these feedback loop diagrams) that could also be substituted for Part 2 of this activity.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The feedback loop examples in the student handout can easily be substituted for examples that fit better into the instructor's science course. These examples could also be modified to fit skills, history, or english courses. Here are some other example feedback loops:


  • Mice and Birds of Prey Populations mini ecosystem - More mice, more birds of prey; fewer mice, fewer birds of prey
  • Reservoir Water Cycle: Simplified water cycle diagram with inflows (precip/snowmelt/groundwater), reservoir (lakes, oceans, glaciers), and outflows (rivers, evaporation, human use, groundwater)
  • Other ideas: Homeostasis, Sustainable Farming


  • Water Demand: People demanding more and more water with no change in inflow
  • Water Pollution: Untreated water flowing into waterways and building up in water bodies
  • Social Media Algorithms - Newsfeed shows you what you react to, hides what you don't.
  • Ice Cover and Climate Change (Albedo) - The more ice the cooler the earth gets, the cooler the earth gets the more ice; the less ice the warmer the earth gets - the warmer the earth gets the less ice there is.
  • Other ideas: Impacts of Systemic Racism, Farming and Soil Degradation, Addiction

Activity 7 provides students with the framework to assess the limitations of a systems diagram (like these feedback loop diagrams) that could also be substituted for Part 2 of this activity.


References and Resources

This systems thinking module is based on the undergraduate Systems Thinking module on InTeGrate, created by Lisa A. Gilbert, Deborah S. Gross & Karl J. Kreutz. This feedback loop activity relates to Unit 4: Feedbacks in a System.

Online Feedback Loop Diagramming Tool: Loopy by Nicky Case:

Systems Thinking Vocabulary Glossary

Why teach systems thinking in Middle School?

"Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts." 2013. Next Generation Science Standards.

Learn about why we should teach Systems Thinking in Earth Science:

Learn more about teaching systems thinking: 

Learn more about systems thinking:

  • Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Pub.