Systems Thinking

Educational tools for developing critical thinking skills around controversial or complex scientific topics may enhance students’ ability to solve sustainable food system issues once they enter into the professional arena. There is a need for integrating teaching techniques that provide usable approaches for critical thinking at the university level, as students are entering into a workforce facing complex socio-scientific issues for which consensus rarely exists. 

One potential approach for strategically educating to address complex food and natural resource issues is systems thinking. Systems thinking is a set of analytic skills which can improve one’s ability to identify and understand systems within interrelated contexts of environmental, social, economic, political, cultural, and psychological structures. The current project tests the usability of hypothetical case scenarios to strengthen students’ capacity for systems thinking. 

Hypothetical case scenarios, also known as choose-your-own-adventure scenarios, present students with realistic scenarios accompanied by choices between which students must choose the best possible decision to address the problem presented. The hypothetical case scenario provides feedback to students’ decisions, which, from a systems thinking perspective, may help foster systems thinking capacity. Hypothetical case scenarios were selected as the educational tool for systems thinking due to its facilitation of student decision-making and the opportunity to provide real-time feedback on those decisions.

The context of the project focuses on aquaculture and the seafood industry. Seafood has the potential to sustainably feed a growing population, but there are significant social and ecological challenges facing the industry limiting its sustainable development. For the development of the industry, students must be able to critically engage with socio-scientific issues at the intersection of society and the environment to generate solutions while minimizing the unintended negative consequences of change. Thus, hypothetical case scenarios related to issues within the seafood industry were developed to test students’ systems thinking capacity and decision-making.

The primary goal of this Hatch project (#1021735), supported by the USDA, is to explore the potential of using systems thinking frameworks to teach students, in agricultural and environmental sciences colleges and beyond, how to approach complex issues within the food and natural resource systems. A secondary goal of the project is to create reusable learning objects, the hypothetical case scenarios, for use in university classrooms across the U.S.