The past few weeks at Hollenbeck, we tried a variety of different exercises which was essentially the start of our approach to systems thinking. For those unfamiliar, systems thinking can be understood as the process of understanding the relationship between interacting components. For a middle school level, this is conceptually very challenging, but it was fun and definitely worth a try.
We started by thinking about the word “ecosystem”. Many hands went up in attempts to define this word. “The soil! The air! Everything!” the students shouted. And they are correct, ecosystems are not restricted by size, meaning that they can encompass something as large as the entire world (AKA Gaia Hypothesis) to something as small as all the bacteria that exist in your stomach (ie. gut flora). There is something quite poetic about this concept, as we begin to see different perspectives of how we interact with the world around us. As I have told the students, we are actively in a relationship to the environment that surrounds us, so we are always part of an ecosystem; yet there is also an ecosystem inside of us.
By this point, most of the students are bewildered, so it was necessary for us to break down the concept into digestible parts. We started with 4 different scenarios: forest, aquarium, city, and chaparral. I asked the students to brainstorm the abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) components of these different ecosystems. We made a huge chart for each of these ecosystems, then we took to the drawing board and began mapping out these different components. Essentially, what we ended up with looked very similar to a food web with the exception that I forced the students to think about the abiotic components of the ecosystem and how they affect the system. For example, in the aquarium ecosystem, one student thought outside of the box (or aquarium, in this case) and said that humans would be a part of the ecosystem because they feed the fishes. So humans were definitely an important component of the aquarium ecosystem because of their direct yet external role. She later went on to tell a story of how her baby brother threw something in the aquarium once and all the fish died. An appropriate term for this would be “ecosystem collapse”, but let’s not get too distracted here.