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CC4: Systems and System Models

Defining the system under study - specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system - provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 84)

Introduction to CC4: Systems and System Model

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Systems and System Models are useful in science and engineering because the world is complex, so it is helpful to isolate a single system and construct a simplified model of it. “To do this, scientists and engineers imagine an artificial boundary between the system in question and everything else. They then examine the system in detail while treating the effects of things outside the boundary as either forces acting on the system or flows of matter and energy across it—for example, the gravitational force due to Earth on a book lying on a table or the carbon dioxide expelled by an organism. Consideration of flows into and out of the system is a crucial element of system design. In the laboratory or even in field research, the extent to which a system under study can be physically isolated or external conditions controlled is an important element of the design of an investigation and interpretation of results…The properties and behavior of the whole system can be very different from those of any of its parts, and large systems may have emergent properties, such as the shape of a tree, that cannot be predicted in detail from knowledge about the components and their interactions.” (p. 92) 

“Models can be valuable in predicting a system’s behaviors or in diagnosing problems or failures in its functioning, regardless of what type of system is being examined… In a simple mechanical system, interactions among the parts are describable in terms of forces among them that cause changes in motion or physical stresses. In more complex systems, it is not always possible or useful to consider interactions at this detailed mechanical level, yet it is equally important to ask what interactions are occurring (e.g., predator-prey relationships in an ecosystem) and to recognize that they all involve transfers of energy, matter, and (in some cases) information among parts of the system… Any model of a system incorporates assumptions and approximations; the key is to be aware of what they are and how they affect the model’s reliability and precision. Predictions may be reliable but not precise or, worse, precise but not reliable; the degree of reliability and precision needed depends on the use to which the model will be put.” (p. 93)

K-12 Progressions

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
Systems and System Models

Students understand objects and organisms can be described in terms of their parts; and systems in the natural and designed world have parts that work together.

Students understand that a system is a group of related parts that make up a whole and can carry out functions its individual parts cannot. They can also describe a system in terms of its components and their interactions.

Students can understand that systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. They can use models to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems. They can also learn that models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.

Students can investigate or analyze a system by defining its boundaries and initial conditions, as well as its inputs and outputs. They can use models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) to simulate the flow of energy, matter, and interactions within and between systems at different scales. They can also use models and simulations to predict the behavior of a system, and recognize that these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in the models. They can also design systems to do specific tasks.

Progression of CC4: Systems and System Models

from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 93-94)

As science instruction progresses, so too should students’ ability to analyze and model more complex systems and to use a broader variety of representations to explicate what they model. Their thinking about systems in terms of component parts and their interactions, as well as in terms of inputs, outputs, and processes, gives students a way to organize their knowledge of a system, to generate questions that can lead to enhanced understanding, to test aspects of their model of the system, and, eventually, to refine their model. 

Starting in the earliest grades, students should be asked to express their thinking with drawings or diagrams and with written or oral descriptions. They should describe objects or organisms in terms of their parts and the roles those parts play in the functioning of the object or organism, and they should note relationships between the parts. Students should also be asked to create plans — for example, to draw or write a set of instructions for building something — that another child can follow. Such experiences help them develop the concept of a model of a system and realize the importance of representing one’s ideas so that others can understand and use them. 

As students progress, their models should move beyond simple renderings or maps and begin to incorporate and make explicit the invisible features of a system, such as interactions, energy flows, or matter transfers. Mathematical ideas, such as ratios and simple graphs, should be seen as tools for making more definitive models; eventually, students’ models should incorporate a range of mathematical relationships among variables (at a level appropriate for grade-level mathematics) and some analysis of the patterns of those relationships. By high school, students should also be able to identify the assumptions and approximations that have been built into a model and discuss how they limit the precision and reliability of its predictions. 

Instruction should also include discussion of the interactions within a system. As understanding deepens, students can move from a vague notion of interaction as one thing affecting another to more explicit realizations of a system’s physical, chemical, biological, and social interactions and of their relative importance for the question at hand. Students’ ideas about the interactions in a system and the explication of such interactions in their models should become more sophisticated in parallel with their understanding of the microscopic world (atoms, molecules, biological cells, microbes) and with their ability to interpret and use more complex mathematical relationships. 

Modeling is also a tool that students can use in gauging their own knowledge and clarifying their questions about a system. Student-developed models may reveal problems or progress in their conceptions of the system, just as scientists’ models do. Teaching students to explicitly craft and present their models in diagrams, words, and, eventually, in mathematical relationships serves three purposes. It supports them in clarifying their ideas and explanations and in considering any inherent contradictions; it allows other students the opportunity to critique and suggest revisions for the model; and it offers the teacher insights into those aspects of each student’s understanding that are well founded and those that could benefit from further instructional attention. Likewise in engineering projects, developing systems thinking and system models supports critical steps in developing, sharing, testing, and refining design ideas. 

Performance Expectations Associated with CC4: Systems and System Models

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Additional Resources

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 91-94)

NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Bozemanscience Video

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