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High School Students' Systems Thinking in the Context of Sustainable Food Systems

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posted on 03.03.2020 by Mingla Charoenmuang

The world is governed by complex systems and it is inadequate to deal with complexity by simplifying it (Bawden, 1991). Therefore, higher-order thinking, especially systems thinking, is needed to help solve complex problems in society. This study addressed two major problems in the education systems. First, high school instruction does not typically support students in developing higher-order thinking (Ichsan, Sigit, & Miarsyah, 2019; National Research Council [NRC], 1988; Smith & Szymanski, 2013; Valerdi & Rouse, 2010). Second, a majority of high school students have limited knowledge and awareness of food, its social and economic significance, and its links to health and environmental quality (Ebrahim, 2016; Harmon & Maretzki, 2006; Mercier, 2015; NRC, 1988; Trexler, Johnson, & Heinze, 2000). This study used sustainable food systems as the context to facilitate the teaching of systems thinking because it offers highly complex and highly relatable educational content to students’ everyday life. The opportunities to practice systems thinking are provided through learning about sustainable food systems that interact with social, cultural, political, economic, health, and environmental conditions at multiple scales (Grubinger et al., 2010). The purpose of this qualitative case study was to explore and describe high school students’ systems thinking throughout a sustainable food systems learning experience, which was designed for students to practice systems thinking. Further, the researcher sought to explore how the learning experience helped students practice systems thinking and how students intended to use systems thinking beyond the learning experience.

Participants in this study were 12 high school students located in the suburban area of the central region of Indiana. Eleven students were enrolled in a food science class in a public high school and one student was enrolled in a homeschool. They participated in the learning experience using self-directed online lessons, scaffolding worksheets, reflection questions, real-world local examples, and experiential learning activities. Data sources consisted of questionnaires, assignments, and field notes, in addition to interview transcripts from a sample of six students. Data were analyzed using qualitative coding techniques. There were four conclusions for this study. First, students who demonstrated systems thinking had the following attributes: (1) they were motivated; (2) they were open-minded; (3) they were aware of holistic thinking; and (4) they had various levels and types of food systems backgrounds and experiences. Second, students demonstrated a combination of systems thinking abilities by extensively explaining about a food system’s various connections, complexity, wholeness, changeability, cyclic nature, and feedback loops in temporal and spatial dimensions using multiple perspectives. Third, systems thinkers benefited from the instructional design features in practicing systems thinking in the context of sustainable food systems and they recognized that systems thinking was challenging and time-consuming, whereas students who were not systems thinkers struggled to come up with their own answers and only benefited from learning about content knowledge and some systems concepts instead of how to think in a systems thinking way. Finally, most students recognized the benefits of systems thinking in helping them better understand complex phenomena when solving problems and performing tasks. Systems thinkers elaborated the applications of systems thinking in supporting a desirable and sustainable food system through food choices, food-related decisions, and future projects. Specifically, most students intended to purchase locally grown and raised fresh food from a farm that used natural methods and used a minimal packaging. Students shared that they would reduce food waste by eating leftovers, donating, and communicating with businesses about reducing food waste. Implications for practice and policy, and recommendations for further research were discussed based on these findings.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Neil A. Knobloch

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Hannah H. Scherer

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Daniel P. Shepardson

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Hui-Hui Wang