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Systems and System Models for Science – Made Easy

March 30, 2024 No Comments

Understanding systems and system models is fundamental in the field of science education. These concepts provide a framework for comprehending complex interactions and relationships within our world. Whether you’re teaching middle school, high school, or even elementary science, grasping these ideas can enhance your students’ understanding of natural phenomena. In this post, we’ll explore the significance of systems and system models in science education. And, I’ll offer insights suitable for educators across various grade levels.

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Systems and System Models

The Crosscutting Concept of Systems and System models is one of my favorite to work with. That is because it is easy to make connections to almost any topic in science. Let’s take a moment and explore what systems and system models are.

What is a system?

At its core, a system is a collection of interacting components or parts that work together to accomplish a particular goal or function. These components can be physical entities, such as organisms or machines, or abstract elements, like processes or relationships.

What is a system model?

System models are representations of these systems, helping us visualize their structure, behavior, and interactions. By breaking down complex phenomena into manageable parts and illustrating their connections, system models enable scientists and students alike to analyze, predict, and understand how systems function.

Models take many shapes and forms. For example, models are simulations, diagrams, mathematical representations and more.

Limitations of Models

All systems have limitations because are all simplified versions of a system. Therefore, they can’t account for every detail or possibility in the real world. While systems help us understand how things work together, they may oversimplify complex situations or fail to predict unexpected outcomes.

Natural vs. Designed Systems

Natural systems, like ecosystems or weather patterns, occur in nature and are not made by humans. Conversely, designed systems, such as computers or transportation networks, are created by humans to serve specific purposes. Despite their differences, both types of systems share commonalities. All systems have components that interact with each other, exhibit behaviors or functions, and can be studied and understood using principles of systems thinking. Additionally, both natural and designed systems are influenced by external factors and may have limitations in accurately predicting their behavior.

Example of Systems in Science

Because a systems is anything you choose to study, the examples of systems are limitless. Here are just a few examples of systems.

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Systems & System Models in Physical Science

Chemistry: There are several different models of the atom. For example, the Bohr Model of the atom is relatively simple. But, it includes most components of the system such as the nucleus, electron shells and electrons. It is useful in studying the simple behavior of atoms but doesn’t properly explain more complex atoms or the shape of the electron orbitals as well as the quantum model. This is an excellent example of how all models have limitations.

Physics: Example of systems include musical instruments, such as guitars, pianos, and trumpets. These instruments produce vibrations that travel through the air as sound waves, creating distinct pitches and tones based on factors like frequency, amplitude, and resonance. Mathematical models explain the properties of sound waves.

Example of Systems in Life Science

Biology: The digestive system is a biological system composed of components called organs. Tissues make up these organs. The digestive system has vast amounts of epithelial tissue that is specifically designed for absorption. Cells and organelles in within the system further assist in the uptake of materials, helping with the function of the digestive system. This example illustrates how observing systems at different scales improves the understanding of the entire system.

Ecology: Each ecosystem is considered its own system. And, within every ecosystem, there are smaller components. Models like food chains and food webs explain feeding relationships within an ecosystem.

Systems in Earth and Space Science

Space Science: The solar system is an example of a system studied in Earth and Space Science. The sun, planets and the asteroid belt are a few components of this system. Each of these components is made up of smaller systems. Thus, this crosscutting concept has strong ties to scale, proportion and quantity.

Weather: El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a natural climate phenomenon. Weather patterns are systems because they are affected by pieces such as temperature, air pressure, and wind. These pieces interact and create different weather, like rain or sunshine, which change based on how they fit together and influence one another.

el nino weather system, with waves crashing on the shore

What are natural and designed systems?

Natural systems are systems that we see in the natural world. These systems are things like planet, ecosystems, and cells.

In contrast, designed systems are human-created. For example, aqueducts and bicycles are examples of designed systems.

What are components of a system?

Components make up systems. They are essentially pieces of the system. For example, the components of the bicycle include the wheels, frame, seat, chain and pedals.

Connections to Energy and Matter

This Crosscutting Concept is very closely related to the CCC of Energy and Matter. This concept requires that students discuss the flow of energy and matter within and through a system. Therefore, it is important that students understand the CCC of Energy and Matter and how it relates to systems and system models.

To learn more about the CCC of Energy and Matter, check out this blog post.

The Progression of Systems and System Models Across Grade Bands

Like all Crosscutting Concepts, the expectations about how students understand the CCC get more and more complex as students age. Let’s explore the expectations for each grade level band. That way, you’ll understand what this looks like in your grade band.

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Early Elementary: Kindergarten through Second Grade

In upper elementary grades, students learn to describe objects and organisms by understanding their observable parts. Also, they explore how systems, whether found in nature or designed by humans, consist of interconnected parts that collaborate to perform functions or achieve goals. Through this exploration, students develop an understanding of how various components within systems interact. And, students understand how these components contribute to their overall functionality.

Upper Elementary: Third through Fifth Grade

In upper elementary grades, students further explore the concept of systems by understanding that a system is made of interconnected parts. The parts work together to perform functions beyond what individual parts can accomplish alone. They start to explore the interactions between the components rather than viewing them as separate entities. learn to describe systems by identifying and explaining the roles and interactions of their components.

Middle School: Sixth through Eighth Grade

In middle school, students observe systems at different scales. They explore how systems interact with other systems, possess sub-systems, and are integral parts of larger, complex systems.

Middle school students utilize models to represent these systems and their interactions, including inputs, processes, outputs, and the flows of energy, matter, and information. And, they also learn about the limitations of models.

High School: Ninth through Twelfth Grade

In High School, students look more closely at designed systems. Systems can be purposefully designed to accomplish particular tasks. When studying a system, it’s essential to define its boundaries, initial conditions, inputs, and outputs, often done using models.

Models also become more complex as students mathematical and critical thinking skills improve. In addition to physical models, students see more mathematical models in this grade band. Students learn that mathematical models enable predictions about system behavior.

Connections to Other CCCs and SEPs

In my opinion, the Crosscutting Concept of Systems and System Models is the easiest to connect to other CCCs and the Science and Engineering Practices. While its possible to argue that this CCC is connected to all of the others, here are the ones that I believe are most closely related.

Erin Sadler

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