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Systems Thinking

Studying and designing technology gives rise to the opportunity to learn Systems Thinking. Figuring out how systems work, whether mechanical, hydrolic, or electronical systems, living or non-living, involves seeing any specific product as made up of parts, some of which work together to perform a function. The collection of one set of parts can make up a sub-system, other parts that work together to perform another function make up another sub-system. These sub-systems are interconnected and work together to do functions that are different than the parts -- the whole system is greater than the sum of its part-systems.

Systems are defined by the boundaries that are drawn to define them. A human body can be considered a whole system that is made up sub-systems, including ones that specialize in circulation, respiration, and providing structure (skeletal). Draw a different boundary, say that of a community, and the human body is now a part of a family that is part of a neighborhood.

Some systems get inputs from outside their boundaries, provide outputs to the outside, and use feedback to adjust how they operate. Getting accurate and timely feedback is important to the survival of some systems. If your car's thermostat is slow to respond to a change in engine temperature, then the engine may overheat and even blow up before the radiator is used to cool the engine.

Systems that work according to system rules nevertheless emergent behaviors make the system seem to behave in unexpected ways. If you use pesticides to eradicate crop-killing insects, the next year can a farmer might more bugs of a different variety because those killed the year before were the predictor to the new bug in town. Computers can simulate how such crop-bug-pest control systems work. Simulation programs like SimCity or Stella show how complex systems need constant attention to operate effectively.


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