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Systems thinking is an approach to problem solving.

Systems thinking is a method used by experts to quantify, evaluate and optimize the inputs, outputs, and flows (such as the movement of materials, money, or chemical elements, etc.) through complex systems such as industries (such as bioenergy and bioproducts production processes), living organisms, entire ecological systems.
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Systems thinking is based on several basic physical and mathematical concepts including the following:

  1. every element in a system is connected to other elements in the system and these elements should not be evaluated or optimized in isolation without consideration of impacts on all the other connected elements
  2. there are inputs, outputs and flows through systems
  3. pressures placed on one part of a system may impact other distantly connected parts


Systems thinking uses conceptual maps and mathematical models to describe and quantify the interactions between the system parts. For example, when we are hungry, sometimes we just think about getting something into our stomach to stop the hunger. However, it is not just our empty stomach that needs food. It’s our entire body.
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Within the human body there are many sub-systems. There is a circulatory system, a nervous system, a skeletal system, a muscular system, a lymphatic system, and so on. There are even more sub-sub-systems at the cellular level. Within our bodies, multiple systems are integrated and coordinated into a functioning larger system. What we choose to eat, or “use as a system input” may benefit one, several, or none of the sub-systems.

By creating a simulation (or mathematical model) that use numbers and equations to represent the behaviors and interactions of different parts of a system, researchers can evaluate and discover how the sub-systems interact with each other, where there may be ‘leaks’ or weak points, and how changing one component may impact the whole system in positive or negative ways.

The BBEP workshops and materials include the over-arching theme of SYSTEMS THINKING. A chapter in the primer is dedicated to systems thinking along with several activities and videos that can be used in the classroom are provided for educators. The workshop primer and lab workbook are available to our workshop participants.

Systems Thinking