Systems and Systems Thinking
A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. The “whole” can be mechanical, social, temporal, natural, numerical, physical, or even ideological, but it will also have various parts or subsystems that are interrelated and interdependent. In other words, the parts of a system continually influence one another directly or indirectly to carry out the system’s function or goal. Examples include a car engine with its various mechanical parts, a family with its small or large number of members, a subway system with its many routes, or a political system with its various structures and laws of governance. It is only our capacity to comprehend the complexity of an observed entity that limits our understanding of the unending number of systems we see and/or play a part within, and how these systems work.
All systems have certain characteristics, in common. Each has inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms; and each maintains an internal steady-state (homeostasis) despite what happens in its external enviroment. As mentioned prior, a system also has many parts that are interrelated and interdependent. If a part is removed or changed in some capacity, the whole system can be altered, or in extreme cases even destroyed. Despite the fact that systems look quite different from one another on the surface, they in fact have remarkable similarities. Some are closed systems with solid boundaries that exist in a self-sufficient state. Open systems have permeable boundaries with inputs and outputs that allow the system to interact with its external environment.
Analyzing and thinking in terms of systems is an essential component in the study of all science disciplines. As stated in the National Science Standards*, students can develop an understanding of regularities in systems, and by extension, the universe; they then can develop an understanding of basic laws, theories, and models that explain the world.
* National Research Council. (1996). The National Science Education Standards, p. 116.