Teaching Systems Thinking to General Education Students
Under the proposition that all college students are able to learn to think in more systemic ways, and understand the value of systems modeling for assisting their thinking, I designed a course for freshmen with no more than basic algebra. In this course the students were exposed to basic systems concepts with a focus on system dynamics modeling (using Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems) of a permaculture-based food production system. They were given a basic problem: How much land area would be needed to collect enough solar energy in food plant photosynthesis per year to feed a community of fifty vegetarians? They were told that the farm would be in the Seattle WA, USA area so they could find the average monthly insolation values. Several additional rate constants and conversion factors were provided so they could build a spreadsheet-based model to generate the number of calories needed. This paper provides anecdotal evidence that systems theory naïve students were able to successfully build a model (in teams) but also were able to apply systems thinking to aspects of their own lives as demonstrated in essays (individuals). Many students reported “seeing the world differently” as a result of the course, particularly seeing how different aspects of the world are connected through various relations. As a result of these successes the course was upgraded to be a little more advanced for upper division students.
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