September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Systems Thinking Skills in the Engineering Classroom

Posted: Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

by Cynthia Berger

Reprinted with permission from

The students in Jean Facchiano’s fourth-grade class have spent the morning engineering their own models of permeable membranes, using ordinary kitchen supplies like sponges, coffee filters, and perforated aluminum foil. The goal is to design a system that lets water drip into a frog habitat, keeping the container slightly damp, not dry or flooded.

Berger1.1Each group of students has come up with their own unique system for controlling water flow into the habitat. Now, in the video at right, the students present their results. It’s not just a show-and-tell; it’s a concise demonstration of elementary students starting to apply their systems-thinking skills.

Can Young Children Really Be Systems Thinkers?

Testing a permeable membrane for a frog habitat.

Testing a permeable membrane for a frog habitat.

The term “systems thinking” refers to the ability to explore and understand the relationships between a system (such as an ecosystem, weather system, or heating system) and its component parts and see the network of relationships among system components. Systems thinking is a skill that will be critical for tomorrow’s adults as they face 21st-century challenges like dealing with climate change, providing healthcare, or meeting society’s energy needs.



Once upon a time, educators thought that elementary-school-aged children simply weren’t capable of the abstract thought required for systems thinking. But in recent years, evidence has supported the idea that elementary students CAN apply systems thinking—and that schools should be proactive in helping students do this, because of the positive impact systems thinking has on learning.

At EiE, we consider systems thinking to be an “engineering habit of mind”—a way of thinking, developed through engagement with engineering, that builds positive learning skills for a lifetime. The new Next Generation Science Standards take this same view; they create explicit expectations that young students will apply systems thinking.

Berger2Consider that NGSS cross-cutting concepts include “patterns,” “cause and effect,” “systems and systems models,” and “flows, cycles and conservation in energy and matter.” Standards like K-ESS3-1 (“Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants or animals [including humans] and the places they live”) also presume that very young students will engage in systems thinking.

Strategies for Promoting Systems Thinking

To develop your students’ systems-thinking skills, you must move the focus of lessons beyond remembering facts and challenge students to use their skills of evaluation and invention. Hands-on engineering is ideal for engaging students in these processes.

Learn more about EiE's Engineering Habits of Mind

Learn more about EiE’s Engineering Habits of Mind

In the “engineering membranes” exercise, for example, students build their initial models based on what they’ve learned in science class about membranes and about the basic needs of live animals, like frogs, who need both air and water to survive. After the design step, they test their models to see what happens when the component parts of the system interact.

In this testing process, they can observe how elements in the system (for example, water in the habitat) change over time. They work to connect cause and effect—to understand how each component of the design has an effect on how quickly the water moves through the membrane. Finally, they must explain their results, drawing on available evidence, and predict how modifications to the design will change the way the system functions.

The Teachable Moment

Berger5In the video to the right, the teacher monitors how her students are thinking about their results, ready to push them to think more deeply. You see two students talking about membranes that failed—one membrane let too much water pass through; the other didn’t let enough water through. Both students attribute the failure to the same component in the system, and Ms. Facchiano prods them to see how these views are contradictory.

An “Improve” step is an important component of the engineering design process. The students in this class go on to redesign their membranes, based on what they understand about their systems. Watch the video above to see them reflect on that experience—and to see the excitement that engineering and systems thinking can generate.

This post originally appeared on the Engineering is Elementary® blog on 2/16/16 at

Engineering is Elementary is a project of the National Center for Technological Literacy® at the Museum of Science, Boston.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.