Systems are Everywhere

Unit Plan

COURSE: Any course in which you use or want to explore systems. Examples of courses where this has been used are: Physical Science, Life Science, Biological Science, Environment Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Oceanography, Engineering, Economics, General Elementary Education.

UNIT: Units that include applications of cycles, feedback loops, circuits, processes, equilibrium, homeostasis, or response for any STEM content. Additionally, units that focus on building 21st century skills, “soft skills”, problem solving, design thinking, systems thinking, career connections, career awareness, and career development skills are enhanced by using this module.

Please note – this Systems Are Everywhere module, as it is currently written, works very well when teaching virtually with students. If you need a comparable module for in-person learning, please consider using either Introduction to Systems module or this Systems are Everywhere module.



In this module, students are introduced to systems, systems modeling, and systems thinking. The activities provide opportunities for them to explore how systems modeling and systems thinking are used to address complex problems and to apply their knowledge and skills to a challenge in their own lives.


See the Standards Addressed page for information about the published standards and process we use when aligning lessons with NGSS and other Science, Math, Literacy and 21st Century skills).  In addition to the aligned objectives listed in buttons on the upper-left of this page, for this module, here is a breakdown of:

What Students Learn?
  • A system is a collection of interconnected and interdependent parts.
  • Systems can be found in all aspects of life, and can be simple or complex.
  • Modeling systems provides insight into the relationships and contributions of each part of a system, and the flow of information through the system.
  • Creating a model is an iterative process that benefits from peer feedback.
  • Computer modeling tools allow for the visualization of the flow of information in a system.
  • A systems model includes nodes to represent the parts of a system, and edges to represent the relationships between those parts.
  • Systems generally have mechanisms for balancing growth and stability.
  • Change in a systems model can be positive, negative, or neutral.
  • Systems thinking allows for a holistic view of a problem in order to affect change.
  • Systems thinking is applicable to many different disciplines.
  • Understanding of systems thinking skills can be developed over time.
  • There are 16 systems thinking skills that fall into 4 categories of mindset, content, structure, and behavior.
  • Systems thinking skills are desirable skills to highlight in job, college, and scholarship applications.


What Students Do?
  • Students evaluate a list of items to determine whether they are a system.
  • Students explain what a system is.
  • Students build understanding of real-world systems by analyzing parts of an urban farm system.
  • Students use an online tool, Loopy, to model a subsystem of the urban farm.
  • Students build on their Loopy model to generate ideas for mitigating the negative effects and / or elaborate on impacts to the system.
  • Students evaluate a cartoon image to determine how it would change if systems thinking was in place.
  • Students apply their knowledge and skills by creating a model in Loopy of a system of their choosing.
  • Students evaluate the pathway requirements for a STEM career.
  • Students produce a profile to showcase their systems thinking skills development.
  • Students create a resume that includes activities where they have used or developed systems thinking skills.
  • Students build understanding of systems thinking skills by analyzing how those skills are used in cancer research.
  • Students evaluate their systems thinking skills development over time using an Excel spreadsheet heatmap.
  • Students create an infographic of a systems thinking skill and present it to the class.



This unit consists of three lessons, each designed to be completed in one to four 50-minute periods. In-class time can be reduced by assigning parts of the activities as homework. Additional Career Connection Activities can be added as time allows.


Lesson 1 – Introduction to Systems and Models (1 class period)

  • Pre-Assessment (10 minutes)
  • Activity 1.1: What is a system? (10 minutes)
  • Activity 1.2: How do systems models help us understand how systems work and how they can be affected? (30 minutes)

Lesson 2 – Systems Thinking (2 class periods)

  • Activity 2.1: What is systems thinking and why is it important? (20 minutes)
  • Activity 2.2: How do professionals use systems thinking skills to address complex problems?  (15 minutes)
  • Activity 2.3: How familiar are you with each of the systems thinking skills? (15 minutes + ongoing tracking throughout the module)
  • Activity 2.4: Building familiarity with the systems thinking skills (50 minutes)

Lesson 3 – Becoming a SystemsThinker (2-4 class periods)

  • Activity 3.1: Modeling your own system (50 minutes)
  • Activity 3.2: Exploring jobs and careers that use systems thinking (50 minutes)
  • Activity 3.3: Integrating systems thinking skills into a professional application (50 minutes)
  • Activity 3.4: Creating your own systems thinker profile (50 minutes)
  • Post-Assessment (10 minutes)



Formative assessments are provided within each lesson. A recommended Pre vs Post Summative Unit assessment is provided in Lesson 1 and Lesson 3.



These are introductory lessons that were developed for high school students for use in any setting. The content can easily be modified to serve students of all ages. No prerequisites or background is needed. However, access to computers is required whether leading this in-person or remotely.



  • Pre/Post-Assessment (Google Doc | Word Doc)
  • Materials and files for each Lesson are found within the lesson links listed above.



ELL students may benefit from a vocabulary list and peer notes that correspond with the module.





Except where otherwise noted, the Systems are Everywhere module, copyright Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) through Baliga Systems Education Experiences, is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  All logos, trademarks, and videos are property of their respective owners. This resource may contain links to websites operated by third parties. These links are provided for your convenience only and do not constitute or imply any endorsement or monitoring by ISB or ISB’s funding agencies. Please confirm the license status of any third-party resources and understand their terms of use before reusing them.