Systems Enrichment Exercises

Systems thinking refers to a set of critical-thinking skills that helps students understand complex phenomena.

Teaching students to see systems and the relationships between elements can enable them to understand the interactions among items that at first blush might not be obviously related, such as wildfire and climate change. Systems thinking skills include recognizing complex relationships, identifying feedback, and understanding dynamic behavior.


Systems thinking skills can help students make the cross-disciplinary connections necessary to understand the ecological, economic, and social impacts of environmental issues. Evidence of the importance of systems thinking skills can be seen in the crosscutting concepts included in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). See this table that correlates the module activities to NGSS crosscutting concepts and systems thinking skills.


Each activity offers a Systems Thinking Connection box and systems reflection questions.

Every systems thinking component (i.e., connection box, reflection question, and enrichment exercise) is marked with the systems icon in the module. Each activity can help you stress systems thinking skills if you wish to use this supplemental component.


The following handouts may be helpful for educators who are emphasizing systems thinking skills and for those using the Systems Enrichment Exercises below.

Systems Thinking Overview

Assessing Systems Thinking Skills

Systems Thinking Tools by Activity




Systems Enrichment Exercises for five activities are available!

Supplemental exercises provide opportunities to explore systems thinking tools and concepts in depth. They were designed to enhance Activities 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 but can be used elsewhere as needed.


Learning about a Tree: This supplementary discussion helps students understand how systems thinking can change the way that we think about a tree.

Dynamic Systems Dance: This short exercise can be conducted outdoors and helps you explain systems and their behavior to students. It gives you a foundation for assisting students in learning how complex systems respond to changes.

Bathtub Dynamics: This exercise introduces students to the concept of stocks and flows by using an example of a bathtub. Students create several behaviors-over-time graphs to examine how the volume of water changes with different inflow and outflow rates. Through creating the graphs, students learn how to avoid a common confusion regarding potential actions for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition to the exercise, a Bathtub Dynamics Presentation & Bathtub Dynamics Teacher Notes are available to help you walk through this example.

Riddle Me This: Students explore the speed at which changes in complex systems can occur due to reinforcing feedback loops in the system. This exercise contains three puzzles to help students practice thinking about exponential change.

Understanding Climate Momentum: In this exercise, students can use a slider tool to explore several different possibilities for projecting global carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Exploring Climate Models: C-LEARN: This exercise allows students to explore how much we need to decrease carbon dioxide emissions in order to stay beneath the United Nation’s suggested limit of a 2 degrees Celsius increase over pre-industrial temperatures. The lesson is similar to the previous model, but the inputs are slightly more complicated.

Feedback Loops in the News: In this exercise, students read a New York Times article that identifies feedback loops on a global scale and then draw a systems diagram, showing the relationships suggested in the article. The article is accessible online, or you can click here for a PDF version.


How Earthworms Got Me into College: This exercise provides a story that exemplifies a recurring lesson in systems thinking—how seemingly small changes can turn into large changes as they ripple through an entire system. Students use a causal diagram to understand the web of cause-effect relationships described in the story.

Impacts of Demand for Sustainable Wood: This exercise helps students see the difference between life cycle diagrams and causal diagrams—two different tools with two different functions. Additionally, this exercise uses a causal diagram to help students understand how demand for sustainable wood plays an important role in protecting forests.