The myriad of problems facing the world today are increasingly complex, dynamic, and transcend multiple domains necessitating the need for an equally complex and trans-disciplinary approach to solve these problems. Systems thinking promises to provide the skills necessary for all citizens of the world, not just the experts, to handle these types of problems. The challenge is fostering the awareness and understanding of systems thinking necessary to cultivate a systems-literate society. Systems literacy is a promising and ongoing effort to establish a common systems language among all people, which requires establishing both the concepts and the path necessary to reach systems literacy. Systems thinking is founded on a set of four underlying concepts, or skills, that every systems thinker uses (distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives). The systems thinking learning path follows a process comprised of three levels – sensibility (awareness of systems), literacy (knowledge of systems), and capability (understanding of systems) – repeated across multiple phases. Recent educational curriculum has been developed to directly and indirectly teach these concepts to initial learners, or non-experts. However, no method to measure whether these initial learners are learning the underlying systems thinking concepts according to this learning process has been attempted. Hence, this research defines and measures the initial systems thinking learning process for non-experts. An experiment was conducted with 97 middle and high school students from the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) Program at Oregon State University to measure initial learning using the four systems thinking concepts across the three systems thinking learning levels. During the experiment, students were asked to complete a fish-tank system drawing while considering elements, interactions, and roles/purposes (Drawing A). Students were then taught about the systems thinking concepts and asked to complete a second fish-tank system drawing (Drawing B).
Drawing A and B for each student were analyzed using a classification structure that classified each element, interaction, and role/purpose drawn according to the three systems thinking learning levels. Experimental results provide evidence to conclude that there is a statistically significant difference in the number of elements, interactions, roles/purposes, and the total of all three drawn by students from Drawing A to B. This indicates that teaching students to apply the systems thinking concepts as skills increases student learning of systems thinking. These exploratory results have the potential to support both future research efforts on systems thinking learning and educators who design systems thinking curriculum.