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Learning the “systems language”: the current challenge for engineering education

Hernán López Garay (Universidad de Ibague, Ibague, Colombia)
Alfonso Reyes (Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota, Colombia)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 6 August 2019

Issue publication date: 19 September 2019




Present-day engineering education is in dire need to expose would-be engineers to a systemic view of the world. Society’s problems are getting increasingly complex “wicked” problems, and they require inter and transdisciplinary approaches to understand and “dissolve” them (that is to solve them systemically). In this context, the purpose of this paper is to invite engineering educators to reflect on the need to teach systems thinking and spark their interest on finding appropriate methods to do so. This paper aims to describe an actual intervention at Universidad de Ibagué (UNIBAGUE), Colombia, where the methodology of teaching systems thinking as a foreign language has been on trial for one year.


Starting with a simple model of teaching systems thinking, and using an action-research methodology, the teaching model is gradually evolved to a model for teaching systems thinking as a foreign language.


The authors only have preliminary qualitative results with this systems-thinking teaching model. Although these results are encouraging (the authors think basic systems concepts are better apprehended by the students), further research is needed. One objective of the present paper is precisely to invite engineering educators to experiment with this teaching model.

Research limitations/implications

The authors think it is necessary to exploit further the teaching-a-foreign-language analogy. There is a vast experience on methods for teaching second and foreign languages. They could enrich the method and hint at possible directions for further research.

Practical implications

Teaching systems thinking is a field still open for wide research. The pedagogical model developed in this research to teach systems thinking could benefit other teachers of systems thinking to build upon.

Social implications

As one of the referees pointed out: “The implications of the insides obtained in this research are very significant to society. The problem observed in the systems thinking researchers and practitioner's community about how to disseminate systems thinking knowledge and how to embed this way of thinking into the minds of young people (K-12, university, etc.) is addressed in this research. In it is shown an experience that provides very valuable insides about how this can be done.


The idea of teaching systems thinking as a foreign language has not been widely explored. Furthermore, we feel that inasmuch as systems thinking is more of a skill or competency, than a technique or theory, then the model of teaching which emerges from this case study might be more appropriate than models of teaching based in the old educational paradigm.



The authors are very much grateful to the teachers and teachers’ assistants who have participated in these experiences. They also thank members of MYSCO research group who have participated in these pilot courses. Their complete involvement with the project and their support made possible the educational experience we recount in this paper. Special thanks are due to Daniel Lopera, Reynel Felipe Gómez, Julio Mazorco, and Victoria Ortegón. With them, the authors launched the second phase of this project in the year 2014 (a previous attempt was made in 2013). Without their active participation, their brilliant ideas and their help to manage this pilot study, nothing of this would have been possible. Thanks also are due to Alex Vanegas, research assistant who helped us with the editing. Last but not least, the authors thank the authorities of the University of Ibague (Rector, Vicerrectora, Consejo Superior) for their total support to the project.


López Garay, H. and Reyes, A. (2019), "Learning the “systems language”: the current challenge for engineering education", Kybernetes, Vol. 48 No. 7, pp. 1418-1436.



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