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Exploring Systems

Learning to think and analyze in terms of systems is a very powerful approach that can help illuminate virtually any issue, topic or object. Dr. Art's Guide to Science introduces the Awesome Systems Idea in Chapter 2, and then models how to apply systems thinking in all areas of science. This exercise provides practice in applying the three systems questions: What are the parts of the system? How does the system function as a whole? How is the system part of larger systems?

Equipment and Supplies:
Two or more people. Works best with groups of four or more people.

Safety Issues:

50 minutes


  1. If this is being done in a classroom or other group situations, have the participants work in groups of four. WARNING: Don't do this by yourself - you might get bored of talking to yourself.
  2. One of the interesting properties of systems is that the whole has properties that are qualitatively different than those of the parts. Dr. Art's Guide to Science provides some examples. Each person should think of a system that demonstrates this rule that the whole has properties that are very different from those of its parts. Without naming that system, each person then describes to the whole group how their system has properties that are different than the parts. The group then tries to guess what system the person is talking about. Do this for each person in the group. For example, one person might say: "The system I am thinking about can put out a fire while its parts burn or are necessary for fires to happen." The group could figure out that the system is water and the parts are hydrogen and oxygen. If there are more than one group, each group could share one or more of its examples with the entire group.
  3. Working in the same groups, select one of the systems that your group has discussed. For that system, each person should write down at least one part of that system, and how that part is itself a system made of parts. Take turns in naming a part of the system and describing how that part is itself a system made of parts. If there are more than one group, each group could share one or more of its examples with the entire group.
  4. Next have each person write down at least one bigger system that your system is a part of. Take turns in sharing your thoughts about the larger systems of which your system is a part. (For example, if the system you have been discussing is a car, then it is part of the country's transportation system. It could also be part of the system of all the things that a family owns. It can also be part of a fleet of vehicles used by a taxi company or a car-pooling cooperative.)
  5. Each group should nominate one system that it thinks is the most interesting in terms of its parts, the properties the whole system has, how those properties compare to the parts, and how the system itself is a part of larger systems. Explain why you nominated that system. In a secret ballot, each person gets to vote for the nominated system that he/she thinks is the most interesting. Count and share the votes.
  6. Review how this exercise has helped you practice asking the three systems questions, and how it has helped illustrate at least two important features of systems (Dr. Art's Guide to Science, page 22).

Appendix/Further Explorations
Most people are comfortable with the idea that a system is made of parts which combine to form a whole system. We are therefore comfortable with an arrow of cause and effect leading from the parts to the whole. Since the parts form the whole, the nature of the parts has a strong influence on the properties of the whole. (Yes, we have learned that the properties of the whole are different from those of the parts. Still, the parts play a large role in making the whole.)

People generally do not think about how the nature of the whole influences the nature of the parts. Often there are arrows of cause and effect leading from the whole to the parts. This can be particularly dramatic when thinking about a part that did not exist until some whole system caused it to be designed and made. One example is the computer mouse. With early computers, you had to use the keyboard to move the cursor position on the screen. There was no such thing as a computer mouse. The need to have much greater flexibility in the whole computer system led to the development of a new part - the computer mouse.

Here are two more examples. The part of the bicycle that enables you to change gears is a new kind of part that was designed to meet a new need created by the whole bicycle system. A car's windshield wiper is another example.

Each group or person should think of another example of a part that was "caused" by the whole. Share and discuss your examples.