The Systems Thinker in Every Student: An Interview with Mary Scheetzby Kali Saposnick from Leverage Points Issue 46Copyright © 2004 Pegasus Communications, Inc. ( All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, without written permission from Pegasus Communications, Inc. If you wish to distribute copies of this article, please contact our Permissions Department at 781-398-9700 or

The Waters Foundation K–12 Educational Partnership consists of a network of educators who research the impact of using systems thinking and dynamic modeling (ST/DM) in elementary and secondary schools; develop the capacity of K–12 educators to apply ST/DM effectively in classroom instruction and organizational planning; and disseminate the results of the research and development work. Mary Scheetz, program director, oversees the foundation's approximately 200 school partnerships as well as manages the local grant site in the Portland, Oregon, School District. In the following interview, she describes the importance of bringing this work into school systems and how the K–12 Educational Partnership creates a powerful network of support for educators.

A Unique Partnership

Founded in 1957, the Waters Foundation is a private, charitable foundation whose support for integrating ST/DM in K–12 schools began in 1990, when the first partnership was formed at Orange Grove Middle School in the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson, Arizona. Based on the positive response from students, parents, and educators, a second partnership was formed with the Glynn County School District in Brunswick, Georgia, in 1995. Since that time, the number of partnerships has changed each year, and there are currently eleven sites directly funded by Waters Foundation grants—in Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts, Vermont, Georgia, Maryland, Iowa, and New York. These sites encompass more than 200 schools and support efforts at hundreds of other schools and districts through workshops as well as ongoing collaborative partnerships.As Mary recalls, in the early stages of the K–12 partnership, programs at each site differed, and her job was to meet with the people spearheading projects to find out what they had accomplished, how they got there, and what would make sense for how the funding would be used. At some schools, she explains, a project emerged from a pioneer educator experimenting with system dynamics in an individual classroom and wanting to expand it into a school-wide program. That's what happened to physics teacher Larry Weathers, who works in the small, two-building school district of Harvard, Massachusetts. Weathers's use of ST/DM projects with his science students had piqued the curiosity of his colleagues, but he could not find ample time to help them develop similar applications in other disciplines. A Waters Foundation grant allowed him to mentor teachers part-time, purchase equipment, and offer stipends.In Glynn County School District, educators had already developed entire curriculum units around systems thinking and modeling, which became requirements for certain grade levels. Wanting to expand and broaden the scope of their work, and not alienate some instructors, they decided to adopt an entirely different philosophy that did not make participation mandatory. Communication with Mary and educators from other sites supported by the Waters Foundation facilitated that transition."Now," says Scheetz, "what initially started as individual funding based on site-specific needs and goals has evolved into a powerful network of school districts with the capacity to help hundreds of individual schools through its research, documentation, and dissemination programs. Rather than adding schools to the formal network, today the Waters Foundation is more focused on supporting schools interested in using systems thinking by providing research information on its web site, workshops, inclusion in network training, and site visits. Our theory is that providing financial support alone is not the way to grow this work. The leverage lies in increasing the capacity of each of our existing sites to serve not only themselves but others as well.

"Spreading the Concepts

As members of the K–12 Partnership pursue the goal of increasing the capacity of all schools to enable every student to become a systems thinker, the question they continually ask is: How can we increase the ability of every teacher to develop lessons that integrate ST/DM with educational best practices? One key answer lies in the belief that people do their best work when they feel they have a choice—about whether they will do ST/DM projects at all and, if so, how they will do them. So rather than telling schools what model to follow, Mary emphasizes that applying these tools to curriculum planning, decision-making, and so forth is one of many options that educators have.Participants in the network have also learned that investing in the training of a small group of committed people is often the highest leverage for bringing this work into schools. When the group develops enough knowledge and experience, they can begin to identify places in the school or district for using ST/DM as a building block for projects that are already a priority for school staff. For instance, teachers in the Salvadori Middle School Program in New York City, which takes a constructivist approach to designing curricula in which one learning leads to the next, might develop a systems lesson that looks at exponential growth by first examining the growth of bacteria in a limited environment. They might then have students apply the learnings to understanding the kinds of policies or systems needed to address population growth in a borough of New York City.

Challenges to Integration

One of the biggest challenges to integrating systems thinking and dynamic modeling into the classroom is documenting the work. "When we first started," says Scheetz, "we did a lot of experimentation to figure out which models worked best. Of course not all of our experiments were successful. A teacher might take 20 hours to design a computer application that produces fewer 'ah-ha's' than an activity you could do in 30 minutes. Another teacher might experiment with behavior over time activities and achieve remarkable results in getting both students and adults to look at change over time, notice patterns and trends, and talk about issues more objectively."One model the K–12 partnership developed that has proven quite effective is an Action Research process in which educators share the results of their projects in annual work sessions. These gatherings provide much-needed opportunities for people to record and review their findings together. Another way the work gets shared is through a partnership with the Creative Learning Exchange, which offers a free, online library of case studies and materials for practitioners and hosts the biannual Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling conference, in which practitioners present their projects, network with each other, and introduce new educators to the work.Besides documentation challenges, the standards movement in American education is perhaps the biggest obstacle to bringing the work into schools. "Although it has produced some good results, including increased consistency in curriculum objectives and teacher accountability," says Mary, "high-stakes testing has created the impression that assessing factual knowledge is a measure for everything in a school. As a result, even as educators, businesspeople, and legislators emphasize the need for collaboration and critical thinking, they end up putting most of their time, money, and resources into producing fact-based achievement. The tremendous pressure for students to be able to name the parts of a cell rather than explain why cells work the way they do forces teachers to focus on the memorization of information that will help students do well on the test."Despite the challenges, the Waters Foundation K–12 Educational Partnership is determined to continue working to integrate ST/DM into school systems, with the goal of remaining open and flexible as to how the work can evolve. Mary explains, "I'm not as interested in convincing people we're doing it the right way as helping them understand our very clear vision that all people—be they students, teachers, administrators, or parents—can become, need to become, systems thinkers in order for us to meet the dynamic challenges of the future."Kali Saposnick is publications editor at Pegasus Communications.