What is a system?

An ecosystem is one example of a ‘system’. The concept (idea) of a system is central to this course. A system can be defined as an assemblage of parts and the relationships between these parts, which together constitute an entity or whole.

SO… what does this mean? In simple terms a system is a set of parts that are linked by some kind of relationship. A system is an ‘abstract concept’. This means that it is not a thing in itself, but rather a way of looking at something (a systems approach).

There are many kinds of system but all systems have certain features in common.

  • Systems will have INPUTS, OUTPUTS (shown as arrows)
  • areas for STORAGE (shown as boxes) + Processes, which transfer (move) or transform (change) energy or matter from one storage to another (shown as labels)
  • Systems  have FLOWS (shown as arrows) (In natural systems this will be energy or matter; in social systems it can be information)
  •  Relationships where outputs can affect inputs are called FEEDBACK loops (shown as arrows)

The edge of a system is called the system boundary (often shown as a boundary line)

Here are the class notes – 1.1.1 Systems Characteristics (Student)

QUESTIONS: What is the biosphere, and how is it different to an ecosystem, a biome and a habitat? What do these terms have to do with ‘scale’? Can you rank these natural systems according to size? [refer to ESS glossary for assistance]


Biosphere (diagram)

Class handout and systems practice/review doc: Systems Task

TASK: Can you make a cup’a?
Plan and write the instructions AND create a systems diagram for making a cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate using a systems approach. Remember to include all relevant open system characteristics:
– Inputs & outputs – flow of energy and matter
– Processes (stock/stores, transfer & transformation) – what you do and when, and of course don’t forget how much
Add as much detail as possible because you will be swapping your “recipe” with another member of the class. You will then evaluate your own method based on peer feedback.
QUESTIONS: What do you think the criteria for a well written method should be? What criteria should we use to evaluate the diagram? What does a good evaluation look like?

How can we classify systems?

Click on this link> 1.1.3 Classifying Systems (Student) and to review the three ‘types’ of systems we refer to in ESS and in natural systems.

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