My School as a System

What You Need


  • Bicycle (optional)
My School as a System


To apply the concepts of systems to students’ lives—in this case, their schools.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

In this lesson, students will explore systems; they will think about their schools as systems, focusing on a social rather than scientific understanding of the concept. The "Unifying Concepts and Processes in Science" category of the National Science Education Standards includes the concepts of systems. These standards are presented in grades K-12 because the understanding and abilities associated with these major concepts (such as systems) cross over an entire education. In the early grades, the emphasis should be on meaning and use, and in the upper grades, there should be more of an emphasis on learning scientific concepts and principles.

According to Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the main goal of having students learn about systems is not to have them talk about systems in abstract terms, but to enhance their ability to attend to various aspects of particular systems in attempting to understand or deal with the whole system. The vocabulary will be helpful for students once they have had a wide variety of experiences with systems thinking, but otherwise it may mistakenly give the impression of understanding. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 262.)

This lesson is designed for students who are beginning their studies of systems. In support of the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks research, it focuses on key concepts of systems while avoiding specific vocabulary, and takes more of a social than a scientific view of systems. Then, once students understand key concepts of systems, they can begin to analyze, design, assemble, and troubleshoot various types of systems (mechanical, electrical, and biological), and further explore the connections among systems. The Extensions section of this lesson provides ideas for activities like this.


The purpose of this section of the lesson is to get students to agree on a common definition of the term, “system.” Ask students:

  • When you hear the word, “system,” what words or images come to mind? (Some possible responses include the solar system, digestive system, school system, stereo system, respiratory system, and muscular system.)

Accept and record all responses. If students didn’t mention a bicycle as an example of a system, ask them if they think a bicycle is a system, and why. (If possible, have a bicycle in the classroom for students to view/manipulate.)

Guide students to the understanding that the bicycle is a system, made up of many parts (e.g., the wheels, gears, brakes, and frame).

Ask students the following question to summarize this section of the lesson:

  • Considering the bicycle, as well as other examples of systems we came up with, how would you define "system"? (Guide students to create a general definition/understanding of systems. Possible responses could include: a system is made up of different parts that come together to form a whole; a system is a collection of things and processes [and often people] that interact to perform some function.)

Wrap up the discussion and transition to the next section of the lesson, letting students know that it will focus on their school as a system.


In this section of the lesson, students will explore their school as a system, as well as part of a larger system.

Distribute the My School as a System student sheet. Have students work in small groups to brainstorm as many components/parts of their school as possible. Some components or parts that students could come up with are: principal, vice principal, administrative staff, teachers, students, the building, buses, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff, media specialists, guidance counselors, nurses, and books/supplies.

Facilitate a discussion to help students begin to understand how every part of this system relates to the others. Ask questions such as:

  • What if one component of the system weren’t there? For example, what if there weren’t any teachers? How would this impact the system? (Possible responses include: If there weren’t any teachers, the students wouldn’t have guidance/supervision or be able to learn new things; confusion would most likely result because the teachers wouldn’t be available to direct the students. The non-teaching staff [e.g., principal, media specialists, guidance counselors] wouldn’t be able to manage the large number of students, and they would be unable to perform their own jobs. The books/supplies wouldn’t be used properly, if at all. The building, itself, may also become damaged because of the large number of students using the building unsupervised.)
  • What if a nearby school closed down and all students had to join our school, giving us many more students? (Possible responses include: The administrative staff would be overloaded with all of the tasks associated with inputting new students into the computer system. The classrooms would be overloaded, the teachers wouldn’t be able to teach as effectively, and the students wouldn’t get as much attention from the teachers and therefore would not learn as well. The building would be overcrowded. The bus drivers would have to work longer hours to be able to pick up all of the students, and the custodians would have to deal with cleaning more trash and spend longer hours maintaining the property.)

Once you are satisfied that students are thinking about their school as a system, in terms of how every part relates to others, distribute the second student sheet, My School as a Subsystem. Use this student sheet to facilitate a discussion to help students understand that any system is usually connected to other systems. First, introduce the term, “subsystem,” and ask students to define it. Some of their responses could be: a subsystem is part of a larger system, or connected to a larger system.

Next, encourage students to think of their school as a subsystem of the broader educational system. As a large group, brainstorm other components (i.e., subsystems) of a broader educational system and record responses on the student sheet. Students’ responses could include preschools, elementary schools, high schools, colleges/universities/vocational schools, superintendent, and school board.

Ask questions such as the following:

  • How are all of these subsystems related? (Each subsystem functions to support education in some way.)
  • How does one subsystem affect the other subsystems? (One example would be that without preschools and elementary schools to start the learning process, the schools with older students wouldn’t be as effective.)
  • How is the broad educational system a subsystem of an even larger system? (One example could be that when students leave the educational system, they enter and contribute to other parts of society. For example, they enter the workforce, and the knowledge and skills they gained in the educational system are used there. And, there is a broad government-supported social system that takes care of citizens. This social system is made up of many subsystems [e.g., educational system, health care system, welfare system].)

Once students have an understanding of the Benchmarks addressed in this lesson, transition to the Assessment.


In this section of the lesson, students will use the School System and Digestive System student esheet to compare a school system to a different system (the digestive system). You should assess their understanding of systems based on their ability to apply their knowledge and understand a new system.

Direct students to access the esheet and follow the instructions provided. Depending on the reading abilities of your students, you can direct them to independently read and navigate the website, or you can move through the website as a group (or choose a new website, if necessary). They can record their answers to the questions on the School System and Digestive System student sheet. You can use the School System and Digestive System teacher sheet for possible answers to the questions.


There are several lessons on the Science NetLinks website that explore the concept of systems, including:

The ArtsEdge website contains this systems-related lesson: Systems of the Body: Movement and Choreography.

For more information on the Respiratory System, see the Inside the Human Body: The Respiratory System information on The Lung Association website.

Grant Info
National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks State Standards