- Matter and energy are the essential components of all systems. Matter is a general term for the stuff all physical objects are made of. Anything made of matter has a mass and occupies a region of space (e.g., solids, liquids, and gases). Energy is a mathematical concept that describes how much change can occur in a system. When there is more energy, more change can occur.
- Forces are also part of systems. A force is a push or pull interaction between two or more objects. Gravitational force, frictional force, and electromagnetic forces are common forces in our world.
- Nearly all systems are made of other subsystems. For example, the human body is made of interacting subsystems (e.g., the digestive system, circulatory system, and nervous system).
- The properties of a system are different from the properties of its individual components. The properties of a system emerge as a result of the system’s interactions. As a result, a system’s properties are sometimes called emergent properties.
Jen Folsom here writing this month’s SCIENCE corner. Regardless of which MSS course you explore, systems thinking is at the heart of what we do. This month, I'll share some tips about how to take a systems approach to understanding science and the world around us. In MSS: Organisms, we define organisms as biological systems. In MSS: Weather & Climate, we explore the atmosphere as a system. In MSS: Energy, we track energy transfers into and out of systems.
Sounds systematic doesn’t it? Well, it is. Like most of what we do here, we put a lot of effort, research, and field-testing into our definition of a system and our approach to exploring systems. Over time, we’ve come to realize that systems have boundaries, components, interactions, inputs and outputs, and properties. The human body is a great example of a system.
We’ve found that this way of thinking about systems has applicability across the fields of science. For example, in order to really make sense of complex things (e.g., organisms, the atmosphere, skateboards flying down ramps, chemical reactions), it’s been helpful for us to think about each thing as a system. It gives us a frame for starting our investigation and has often led us to see things we otherwise would have missed. It also helps solidify and expand our understanding of matter, energy, forces, and properties — ideas that wind through all of science. And best of all, it has caused us to ask some fascinating questions about the world around us.
Pick anything around you, and give systems thinking a whirl. We bet you find yourself investigating your world in ways you might not have expected.
A few key things to note about systems: