This lesson introduces students to complex systems and to basic concepts from the field of system dynamics that lie at the heart of systems thinking. These concepts include stocks and flows, feedback loops, unintended consequences, and the basic principle that the behavior of complex systems can best be understood by looking at the system as a whole, and specifically by analyzing the system’s underlying structure. The lesson introduces these topics through an immersion in (and a role-play simulation of) the dynamics of urban recycling systems, many of which have been thrown into crisis in the past two years. Through this current-affairs example of complex systems in crisis, we identify some key structural features that help to explain how these systems behave over time. We also discover how well-intentioned action can cause negative unintended consequences when we try to intervene in a complex system without understanding how it operates.
Subject(s): Science, Mathematics
Grade Level(s): 10, 11, 12
Computer for Presenter, LCD Projector
Keywords: Complex Systems, Systems Dynamics, stocks and flows, feedback loops, unintended consequences, urban recycling systems
Structure of the Lesson:
This lesson is focused around one primary activity (the Recycling Role Play: Activity #2) that provides students with an opportunity to discover and experience some of the behaviors and properties of complex systems themselves. In this activity, 10 students arrange themselves in the room in a pattern that they think illustrates how the actors in a recycling system are connected, and then they pass three balls of yarn between themselves to illustrate how they think that materials (recyclables and money) flow through their system. This activity will take a minimum of 15 minutes and can take up to 25 minutes, if there is time for some discussion and reflection involving the whole class following the activity’s completion (highly recommended!)
The remaining activities in the lesson (Activities #1, #3, and #4) each consist of 5-minute discussions with peers. Including video segments, the lesson runs between 47 and 57 minutes, depending on how much time is devoted to discussion following the Recycling Role Play.
Source and Access Information
Name of Author/Source: Elizabeth Murray
District/Organization of Contributor(s): Massachusettes Institute of Technology
Access Privileges: Public
* Please note that examples of resources are not intended as complete curriculum.