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Systems Thinking and AI applications

Integrating Digital Technologies
Years 7-8; 9-10

This lesson takes a systems thinking approach to understanding the place of artificial intelligence (AI) as a component within solutions to real-world problems. It can be used in areas such as:

  • predicting bushfire hotspots
  • spotting and monitoring animals in the wild
  • automated horticulture and agriculture
  • early detection of medical issues.

While branches of AI such as machine learning (ML) often bring a new, critical element to these solutions, they typically function as part of a larger system involving hardware, software, data, people and procedures.

In this lesson, students will study and analyse real-world systems involving an AI component, then envision the application of AI within a new or existing system to solve another problem of their choice.

Systems thinking is ‘a holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where the focal points are treated as components of a system, and their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the entire system’. (Key Ideas – Technologies, Australian Curriculum)

Note: If your students are new to systems thinking, we recommended that you first undertake the lesson Habits of a Systems Thinker.


 

Image credit: Image: Arek Socha/ Pixabay


Learning map and outcomes

In this lesson, students will:

  1. reflect on the habits of a systems thinker by considering a real-world solution with an AI application – detecting skin cancer
  2. apply the habits of a systems thinker to one of the provided case studies
  3. analyse an information system for a real-world solution with an AI component, focusing on habits of a systems thinker
  4. using a template, prepare a system analysis for a different real-world solution with an AI component
  5. identify and define their own AI application to address a problem or need, performing the system analysis again.

Learning input


A system is a collection of parts that are arranged and connected in a specific way. Interactions between the parts within the system, and between systems, influence the stability of the system as a whole.

A systems thinker uses a wide perspective and traces interrelationships to ‘join the dots’ and draw conclusions or make predictions about a system. They note events and patterns of behaviour and understand how these are caused by system structures such as feedback loops. Systems thinkers use tools to help with their thinking, such as causal loop diagrams and models.

Students will use the Habits of a systems thinker cards (download the cards as a PDF). These cards are introduced in the lesson idea Habits of a Systems Thinker.

Whole class – Revise the habits of a systems thinker by listing and discussing them.

Whole class – Introduce an AI application to model the application of systems thinking habits

In the following example, the focus is on using AI to assist with skin cancer detection. You could use one of the following videos to exemplify how some businesses are using AI and machine learning in the area of health. (Note: this is not an exercise in endorsing the businesses themselves.)

Ask students to consider which habits of a systems thinker apply to the problem of skin cancer detection within the healthcare system. Explain how the habit applies, and include an example.


Students complete the sentences below to revise the concepts of positive and negative feedback loops covered in the lesson idea Habits of a systems thinker.

When a change is happening in a system, a _________ feedback loop tends to dampen or buffer the change, leading to more stability.

An example is _____________________________________________________________.

A diagram titled Balancing/ Stabilising effect that represents a negative feedback loop. A is linking to B via a positive arrow. B then links back to A via a negative arrow.

When a change is happening in a system, a _________ feedback loop tends to amplify or exacerbate the change, leading to less stability.

An example is _____________________________________________________________.

A diagram titled Balancing/ Stabilising effect that represents a negative feedback loop. A is linking to B via a positive arrow. B then links back to A via a negative arrow.

Whole class – Identify any positive or negative feedback loops in the healthcare system in the context of skin cancer detection, the system discussed earlier. Draw these using causal loops.

Learning construction

Applying habits of a Systems Thinker

  1. Using the same process as in ‘Learning input’ above, ask students to select an AI application of interest and apply the habits of a systems thinker. Students can record their ideas in list form or as a concept map, using causal loops to illustrate positive or negative feedback loops.
  2. Select from the following case studies:

    Environmental monitoring

    Conservation

    Agriculture


Example case study: Lifesaver drone combined with shark spotting AI

  1. Start by viewing the video and reading the article here.

    Source: The Ripper Group

  2. Spend some time discussing this system as a class.
    • What are the main purposes of the system?
    • How does the system meet the need for beach shark safety in a way that is potentially better than other approaches?
    • Two specific components are mentioned here: the lifesaver drone itself and the shark spotting image recognition AI algorithm.
      • Do you think the AI algorithm runs onboard the drone or on a computer elsewhere? Why?
      • What hardware is needed to connect these two components?
    • How/where are people involved in this system?
  3. In groups or pairs, students view the completed template to guide them through an analysis of this system. The completed template includes annotations to explain each section.

Student selected case study

  1. Provide students with the blank template, Analysis of an Information System and ask them to refer to the completed template Analysis of an Information System using the Shark AI spotter as an example.
  2. Ask students to perform an analysis of a system of their choice that includes an AI component. Students may continue to work in pairs or groups.
  3. Students can choose from the following examples:

    Environmental monitoring

    Medical and health monitoring

    Conservation

    Agriculture

    More complex case studies

Learning construction and demonstration

Students consider a new AI application they think will benefit society or the environment, and may use the worksheet called A new AI application to answer the questions below.

  1. What problem needs solving, or what need could be met?
    • The application may save time, money, improve health of individuals, help people with a disability, conserve wildlife or the environment.
    • It may be at home, school, work, on the street, in common places such as libraries, in nature.
    • What activities or tasks occur that are often repeated?
    • What might benefit from automation?
    • Would solving the problem benefit from learning from past data?
  2. What is the purpose of the application?
    • Define the goal of the application in positive terms.
  3. What are the parts of the application system?
    • Represent the application as a system, including hardware, software, people and procedures.
    • List all the parts of the system, including the key AI component as a part.
  4. What are the connections in the application system?
    • Draw a diagram of the system, showing the listed parts and any connections you can make.
  5. What data sources does the key AI component need to function?
    • Does it need to analyse images and data? (computer vision)
    • Does it need to clump data, categorise and label the data? (classification)
    • Does it look for trends in data and relationships in that data? (pattern recognition)
    • Does it need to interpret speech or text? (natural language processing)
  6. What data or information does the key AI component produce?
    • Why is it necessary in the system?
  7. How does the AI component interact with the system?
    • Identify any feedback loops between the AI component and the other parts of the system.
    • What keeps the system in a stable state and how is the AI component monitored?
  8. Identify the supra system or connected system.
    • Name at least one supra system (a larger system that your application is part of) or another system connected to the application. For example, it might be societal, government, environmental, financial, etc.
    • List some other parts of the supra system.
  9. What are the impacts on the supra systemor connected system?
    • What is a likely impact of the application on the supra system or connected system?
    • What unintended impacts might there be? (Consider time delays.)
  10. What ethical concerns might arise?
    • Consider two different viewpoints from people or groups with a connection to the application.
    • What ethical concerns might these people or groups have about the application?
    • What choices or actions might they suggest to make the application better or worse?

Resources

Lesson idea

  • Habits of a systems thinker – This lesson idea introduces basic systems thinking skills and concepts, including a context related to the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies.

Videos

Websites

Worksheets, PDFs