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Teaching Systems Thinking: Why, What and How

Dr Ronald Kander | Philadelphia University

Teaching Systems Thinking: Why, What and How

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A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves a specific function or purpose. Examples of systems all around us range from complex manmade systems like our automobiles and computers, to biological ecosystems like our bodies and our planet, to complex service systems like universities, hospitals and governments. In today's world, it is important to teach systems thinking because the challenges we face are becoming more and more complex with time, and more difficult to understand and predict using traditional tools and techniques. There are two prevailing theories on why humans have so much trouble dealing with complex, highly interconnected systems. One theory is that people are idiots. (This may indeed be true, but it is not a very useful theory and not one I will address in this presentation!) The second theory is that we don't have very good tools to visualize, model and simulate the behavior of complex, highly interdependent systems. More importantly, we also don't have good ways to communicate understandings and insights about complex systems to one another and to key decision makers. This second theory is the one addressed by a new course at Philadelphia University that is designed to impart 'systems thinking' skills to students from a wide range of professional majors from the design, engineering and business disciplines. Students who successfully complete this course are able to explain the major attributes of a system, define the spatial and temporal boundaries of a system, map the interrelationships between variables within dynamic systems, and apply systems thinking tools to recommend solutions to complex real world problems. The course is taught using VensimPLE, a systems dynamics software package from Ventana Systems (http://www.vensim.com). This is freeware that can be downloaded from the web for educational use, so no student purchase is required. The course also uses a book authored by Donella H. Meadows entitled 'Thinking in Systems: A Primer' (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).