Teaching and Assessing Systems Thinking workshop hones teaching skills | MIT J-WEL

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Teaching and Assessing Systems Thinking workshop hones teaching skills

J-WEL members come together online to improve instruction of a critical interdisciplinary skill

Grasping the complexity of nearly any discipline increasingly requires thinking from a systems perspective. Whether in engineering, biology, or social sciences, understanding how components of a system interact to produce desirable and undesirable outcomes, which in turn impact the system itself, is necessary for solving challenges and developing innovations. For two days this March, participants from J-WEL member organizations gathered online to explore the challenge of teaching this skill with the guidance of members of MIT’s New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program.

In introducing the workshop to participants, Dr. Anjali Sastry, J-WEL Senior Strategist and MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer remarked, “Your students will find there are applications across domains. System thinking has its roots partly in engineering control theory. The steam engine required a control mechanism–called the governor–to run the locomotive engines so central to the emergence of industrialization, and electrical engineering would be nowhere without control systems. But systems thinking also has roots in fields from biology–look at homeostasis—to social sciences—think of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ It’s a rich domain in which to build a universal language.”

Systems thinking is one of the key interdisciplinary skills taught across NEET, an innovative educational program launched at MIT in 2017 to reimagine engineering education at MIT. A cross-departmental endeavor with a focus on integrative, project-centric learning, NEET cultivates the essential skills, knowledge, and qualities to address the formidable challenges posed by the twenty-first century. Since its inception, the program has grown to serve the fourth largest student cohort at MIT.

The March Workshop, Teaching and Assessing Systems Thinking in Undergraduate Education, drew participants from 10 member organizations including the University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Central University of Technology (South Africa), and J-WEL’s newest member, Universidad César Vallejo (Peru). In the workshop, the NEET team introduces participants to the SAFO framework for understanding systems, which analyzes the System type (technological, biological), Architecture (structure and behavior of components), Function (how the system interacts with the environment), and Outcomes (both positive and negative).

“The idea here is to distill the systems thinking in engineering systems, thinking about technological systems to its very fundamentals, so we can introduce it essentially to a high school student or a first-year university student,” explained workshop instructor Rea Lavi, Lecturer and Curriculum Designer for NEET.

Day one of the workshop included collaborative exercises in mapping systems to the SAFO framework, and in developing assessments to measure student understanding of complex systems. Exercise teams comprised members from across the participating organizations, bringing global perspectives to the teams’ work. Systems addressed by the teams included a room occupancy monitoring system for COVID prevention, a learning management system, and a stormwater green roof infrastructure. On day two of the workshop, participants deployed one another’s assessments, shared lessons learned from that experience, and participated in a culminating interactive showcase of assignments in a virtual interactive environment.

The Teaching and Assessing Systems Thinking workshop is one component of an integrated series of events and activities throughout the year that support the work of J-WEL members in transforming education for the populations they serve. These events expose members to effective science-based educational practices and digital learning innovations and allow participants to share global education perspectives, challenges, and opportunities. Learn more about J-WEL membership.

Illustration: Slide from team project in the Teaching and Assessing Systems Thinking workshop.