The solar system, the metric system, the circulatory system, the system of checks and balances, transportation systems, broadcasting systems, information systems, the Dewey Decimal system – we see the word “system” every day in a variety of contexts.
The word “system” refers to a group of interrelated objects that form an integrated whole or that work together to achieve a desired result. The concept of systems is an underlying theme or “big idea” in the sciences. And yet often we concentrate exclusively on the components such that students don’t see how they are connected or affect and influence each other. For example, students learn about the body systems but may not realize how these systems of cells, tissues, organs, and functions are interrelated.
Some people can intuitively see and understand these relationships; others may need guidance and modeling to do so. This month’s Science Scope has several articles with activities that can help students understand this concept.
- Systems Concepts Effectively Taught Using Systems Practices uses a cell phone simulation (that should get students’ attention!) to help students learn about networks.
- Teaching Science Through a Systems Approach has many examples of systems and shows how concept maps can be used to visualize systems.
- Focusing on Function: Thinking Below the Surface of Complex Natural Systems describes how a classroom aquarium can be used to illustrate the structures, behaviors, and functions are connected within a system.
So why should we bother with the concept of systems when there’s so much else to “cover?” Is it all that important? The National Science Education Standards include systems as one of the Unifying Concepts and Processes in science. In Pennsylvania (the state I’m most familiar with), the first science standard category is “Unifying Themes” and the first standard deals with understanding systems! Check your state’s standards in science to see if the concept of systems is mentioned.
The concept lends itself to interdisciplinary studies, too. The article Farm to Table and Beyond describes activities to “help students make sense of the global food system” and integrate their knowledge of biology, geography, economics, and nutrition. And who doesn’t like to think about food! This would be an eye-opening discussion for students who do not live close to the sources of their food.
Log into Scilinks and use the code SS070801 for web resources on the topic of systems theory and examples of more activities. If you’d like more background on systems theory, here are some places to start: General Systems Theory, Systems Theory, System Theory, Systems Thinking, and Introduction to Systems Theory.
Here’s a pop quiz: Our classrooms and schools are examples of systems, too. Are they “open” systems or “closed” ones?