Successful Applications of Systems Thinking: ThinkWater

A couple recent posts in online discussion groups have asked about positive outcomes that result from applying systems thinking (ST) to a variety of topical areas. In fact, one person asked if anyone was doing something, or if everyone was just talking about ST. I'm excited about my new job because it has started my journey to learn systems thinking (and a lot more).

I am working on a project through University of Wisconsin Extension and Cabrera Research Lab funded by USDA-NIFA called ThinkWater. ThinkWater uses ST as a force multiplier to enhance understanding of water education efforts and to improve water-related efforts by top researchers and extension professionals dealing with complex and severe water problems.

The ThinkWater effort has been underway for a couple years, so I thought I would mention one instance of successful ST application that preceded me, and highlight one more that is currently underway in this new cycle of the initiative.

First off, I should say that the Cabreras have taught systems thinking in the form of DSRP to an array of audiences (PreK to postdoc) and demonstrated that ST increases mastery of diverse content across groups.

As part of ThinkWater, there was an experimental case study conducted in three schools in New Mexico and Ohio. In this study, teachers taught 2 different environmental lessons to students, one before completing a one-hour online teacher training in systems thinking, the other after the ST training.

In essence, teachers taught an original (non-DSRP/ST) version of the lesson to some students and then they taught a DSRP/ST-informed lesson (after DSRP/ST training) to others. Students developed deeper understanding of water content (at statistically significant levels) from the DSRP/ST lessons when compared to non-DSRP/ST lessons.

Thus, when the teachers embedded the basic concepts of DSRP/ST into existing water curricula, the students did better on the curriculum content. Furthermore, they also developed some awareness of their thinking processes used to master the content of the water-related lesson.

The specific lessons chosen for this study were selected by water education experts as being the "best of the best" from national water education curricula. So this study showed that DSRP/ST incorporated into lesson design as well as a DSRP/ST treatment improved outcomes on even the best water lessons available.

ThinkWater is currently conducting a separate study with Project Wet Arizona focused on intensively training a small group of educators in systems thinking. The purpose is to enable them to turn around and train (some in education call this a "flip" approach) other teachers both how to (1) become systems thinkers and (2) embed these new DSRP/ST skills into their teaching of the Water Investigations Program.

These teachers then teach more than 2000 middle schoolers across school districts in Arizona. Thus, the number of students that can be reached (and whose learning can be enhanced) is significantly increased. At the time of this blog, teachers have completed one of two days of training in systems thinking, and will begin teaching existing units from the Water Investigations Program utilizing their new knowledge in October 2015.

Data from the educators who facilitated the turnaround training will be collected and analyzed by October 2015, as will the pre- and post-survey data from the teachers who will implement the ST-boosted version of the Water Investigations Program. Pre- and post-data will also be collected from the students in October 2015 and May 2016, with final study results published by June 30, 2016.

There are other initiatives underway, all with a practical application (improving research, teaching, learning about water) and all accompanied by empirical research to establish efficacy and continually learn and refine our methods. More on those projects on another day... If you are interested in ThinkWater, please watch the short video and visit the website.

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