Teaching Systems Thinking in Science

In Washington State, our first of four Science Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs) is Systems. Systems is considered a Cross-Cutting Ability, which means that the standards within the Systems EALR should be embedded in instruction of physical science, Earth/Space science, and life science. Systems thinking provides a unifying concept for learners to make sense of  the natural world- from micro to macro:

What are the parts of the system?

What are the inputs and outputs?

What does the whole system do that the individual parts cannot do?

How does energy, matter, and/or information flow through the system?

Unfortunately, most of our current K-12 science instructional materials do not intentionally target systems ideas. It is up to us, as teachers, to bring systems thinking into our existing units of instruction.

I am currently working on a K-8 Systems Integration Toolkit that will be available FREE to teachers and districts online. The toolkit will assemble Washington State science resources from OSPI (standards and assessment), tools developed by districts, sample lessons, information on systems for our own teacher content knowledge, and links to multiple online resources. Below are some of the resources that will be included in the Toolkit.

*Please let me know of any resource on Systems that I’m missing or that you developed and are willing to share.

NSDL Science Literacy Map for Systems– examine how systems ideas progress from K-12

Science for All Americans Online- Chapter 11 Systems

Benchmarks Online- Systems

Questions to Ask about Systems– a great 1-pager from Project 2061

Washington State’s Science Standards– see how Systems thinking progresses from K-12

My School as a System– middle school lesson from Science NetLinks

The Bicycle as a System– middle school lesson from Science NetLinks

Cell as a System lesson for high school

exploring systems centers worksheet where students engage with a variety of objects and determine what is and is not a system

Washington State Systems Standards (I use these as an activity where I cut the standards into strips and ask participants to identify systems concepts in the K-12 standards) – sys k-12 extracted white background

Is it a System? Formative Assessment Probe from Uncovering Student Ideas in Science Vol. 4 by Page Keeley. I use this probe often in PD sessions on Systems- uncovers initial understanding of systems and is a great “conversation starter”.

Dr. Art’s Guide to Science– Art Sussman’s book and site provide an easily understood take on Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking OVERVIEW– multiple definitions of systems from various sources

Systems Thinking Framework– a set of frameworks developed by ESD 112

Ladybug Toy System anchor lesson– a sample lesson where students examine a physical system

12 responses to “Teaching Systems Thinking in Science

  1. Kathryn Strojan

    Kirk – I’d love to talk. I got to attend the ST/DM conference hosted by Creative Learning Exchange last summer. I am planning on attending Camp Snowball this summer. I have done some work with my 7th graders this year regarding Systems Thinking and am trying to become adept at using STELLA software (it’s going slowly). I’m really a novice but excited about learning and will definitely be checking out some of your resources. There are some local resources I’d love to share with you. Send me an email if you are interested.
    Kathryn Strojan, Math/Science, Tahoma School District

    • science_4_all

      Hi Kathryn,
      I would love to hear more about the work you have done with your 7th graders and how you are using STELLA (I have only played with this a little bit). I would love to see some of the local resources you are using. robbinsk2@comcast.net


  2. Thank you for these amazing resources!

  3. What about the biosphere as a system?

  4. Kirk and all:
    Wonderful to read of your efforts here . . . exactly what is needed to help educators across the US with this crucial skill set – the language and iconography of system dynamics and systems thinking. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems, Diana Fisher’s First-Year Course in System Dynamics, Qaden and Ticotsky’s Shape of Change, and Linda Booth Sweeney’s When A Butterfly Sneezes are four excellent books that will launch teachers’ knowledge and lessons. Among the K-12 systems community, most people look to the Creative Learning Exchange (www.clexchange.org) and the Waters Foundation(www.watersfoundation.org) as resource-rich sites. Washington is way out in front in this effort . . . and so I extend a deep bow to educators and politicians up north of me who pushed this through.
    BTW . . . love your blog, Kirk. I often send it forward to teachers at my school.
    Tim Joy

    • science_4_all

      Thanks Tim- these are great additions… and thanks for the kind words regarding the blog

  5. Pingback: She Tweeted You With Science! 05/15/2011 | Teaching Miss Cheska

  6. Hello! I have stumbled along to your blog after a colleague mentioned it to me. I lead a program to translate systems biology research into middle and high school curriculum modules. Through much collaboration and NSF funds, we have developed 4 supplemental curriculum modules that build systems thinking through application of hands-on systems science. The new WA state science standards have been a huge help to begin the process of helping our students build systems thinking skills. There’s a huge shared mission between our work and what you’ve addressed in this blog! All of our curriculum is free to use and developed by teams of students, teachers, and scientists. Please contact me for more information and/or questions.


    Thanks for your blog – what a terrific resource!!

    • Hi Claudia,
      Thanks so much for the kind words about the blog.. I appreciate it.
      Thanks also for the reminder about the great resources you have developed.. I’m assuming it’s OK for me to share these on the blog.
      We should definitely connect the next time I’m at or near ISB.


  7. Thank you very much for pulling together these resources. You know it is hugely appreciated by all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s