Author Archive

2011 Barry Richmond Scholarship Award

August 10th, 2011 2 comments
Sarah accepts award

Sarah Boyar accepts Scholarship Award from Joanne Egner

The Barry Richmond Scholarship Award was established in 2007 by isee systems to honor and continue the legacy of its founder, Barry Richmond.  Barry was devoted to helping others become better systems citizens.  Systems citizens are members of a global community that strive to understand the complexities of today’s world and have the informed capacity to make a positive difference.  It was Barry’s mission to make systems thinking and system dynamics accessible to people of all ages, and in all fields.  The award is presented annually at the System Dynamics Society Conference to an individual whose work demonstrates a desire to expand the field of systems thinking or to apply it to current social issues.

Through most of his career, Barry focused on education as the key to spreading systems thinking.  As a teacher and a mentor he dedicated much of his time to developing tools and methodologies for teaching systems thinking.  With this in mind, it was a great pleasure to present this year’s award to Sarah Boyar, a recent graduate of the Masters Program in System Dynamics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

Sarah Boyar and Karim Chichakly enjoy the conference banquet

Sarah Boyar and Karim Chichakly enjoy the conference banquet

Sarah presented a portfolio of her work to the scholarship committee.  In particular, an essay about her teaching philosophy resonated with us.  Sarah wrote this piece while taking a seminar in college teaching in order to fulfill her Real World Dynamics course requirement at WPI.  Since she already had plenty of experience as a consultant applying system dynamics to real world situations, Sarah managed to convince the WPI powers-that-be that an essential real world manifestation of system dynamics is the way that it is taught.  This is something Barry would have encouraged and been excited about.

Her essay titled Beliefs About Teaching and Learning begins as follows:

I teach System Dynamics. While I want my students to have some knowledge of system dynamics, most of all I want them to be excited and stimulated by it. I also want them to find it beautiful: I want to teach in such a way that my students find some aspect of beauty in the work, whether it’s through the visual arcs in the model interface, or the precision of algebra in the way we write statements, or the way that system dynamics can ameliorate a social ill that concerns them. I want my students to somehow feel a sense of peace and beauty derived from some aspect of the knowledge I am teaching.

Among Sarah’s aspirations is the desire to teach system dynamics to professionals in other fields, namely lawyers (potential judges) and medical doctors.  Incorporating a systems perspective within both the judicial system and in healthcare could certainly make a positive difference for us all.  Good luck and congratulations Sarah!

What is the difference between STELLA and iThink?

March 9th, 2011 3 comments

The question we get asked most frequently by just about anyone who wants to know more about our modeling software is “What is the difference between STELLA and iThink?”  From a functional perspective, there are no differences between the STELLA and iThink software — they are two different brands of the same product.

The STELLA brand is targeted toward individuals in educational and research settings.  Supporting materials such as An Introduction to Systems Thinking with STELLA and sample models cover the natural and social sciences.

iThink, on the other hand, is targeted toward an audience of users in business settings.  An Introduction to Systems Thinking with iThink is written with the business user in mind and model examples apply the software to areas such as operations research, resource planning, and financial analysis.

Aside from the different program icons and other graphic design elements that go along with branding, there are just a few minor differences in the default settings for STELLA and iThink.  These differences are intended to pre-configure the software for the model author.  They do not limit you in any way from configuring the default setup to match your own individual preferences.

Below is a list of all the differences between the default settings for STELLA and iThink.

Opening Models

When opening a model with STELLA on Windows, by default, the software looks for files with a .STM extension.  Similarly, iThink looks for files with an .ITM extension.  If you want to open an iThink model using STELLA or vice-versa, you need to change the file type in the Open File dialog as shown below.

STELLA file open dialog

On Macs, the open dialog will show both iThink and STELLA models as valid files to open.

If you open a model with a file type associated with the different product than the one you are using, you’ll get a message similar to the one below warning you that the model will be opened as “Untitled”.  Simply click OK to continue.

STELLA file conversion dialog

Saving Models

When saving a model in STELLA, by default, the software saves the model with a .STM file extension.  Similarly, iThink saves model s with an .ITM extension.  If you’re using STELLA and want to save your model as an iThink file or vice-versa, use the Save As… menu option and select the appropriate type as shown below.

STELLA save as dialog

STELLA on Windows save dialog


STELLA on Mac save dialog

STELLA on Mac save dialog

Run Specs

Since iThink is targeted toward business users who tend to measure performance monthly, the default Unit of time for iThink is set to Months.  It’s also easier to think about simulations starting in month 1 (rather than month zero) so we set the default simulation length in iThink to run from 1 to 13.  STELLA on the other hand, reports the Unit of time as “Time” and, by default, runs simulations from 0 to 12.

Run Spec comparison

Run Spec Default Settings Comparison

Table Reporting

In a business context, financial results are generally reported at the end of a time period and the values are summed over the report interval.  For example, in a report showing 2010 revenues we would assume the values reflect total revenues at the end of the year.  In line with this assumption, the default Table settings in iThink include reporting Ending balances, Summed flow values, and a report interval of one time step.

In a research setting, scientists tend to prefer reporting precise values at a particular time.   For this reason, the default Table settings in STELLA are configured to report Beginning balances, Instantaneous flow values, and a report interval of Every DT.

table default settings comparison

Table Default Settings Comparison

STELLA or iThink

When choosing between STELLA or iThink, try to think about the kinds of models you intend to build and the problems you are looking to solve.  If your objective is to drive business improvement, chances are iThink will be a better fit.  If your purpose is to understand the dynamics of a natural environment or social system, STELLA will likely be your brand of choice.  Whatever you decide, both products will provide you with the exact same functionality and can easily be configured to suit your own preferences.

2010 isee User Conference “Making Connections”

October 21st, 2010 3 comments

Connecting at the welcome reception

Earlier this month, we had the pleasure of hosting the 2010 isee User Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. During this amazing gathering of isee customers, partners, friends, and iThink/STELLA enthusiasts, we learned about the important work that is being done applying Systems Thinking to solve real-world problems, shared ideas, and made connections with one another.

For two and a half days, I saw participants immersed in keynote presentations, breakout sessions, and hands-on workshops.  As important, however, were the less structured round table discussions, poster presentations, and social activities.  Everywhere I looked, folks were engaged in conversation and connecting with one another.  Even better, I knew that many of those connections would continue to be fostered and developed well after the conference was over.

Presentations and models

Conference presentations and models are now available on the isee systems web site.  Please download and share these materials with your colleagues and friends. You’ll get a glimpse into the wide range of fields where Systems Thinking is being used to better understand the interconnections of dynamic systems including business, healthcare, education, energy, and the environment.  You can also download and listen to audio recordings of the keynote presentations:

A Conference Highlight

Steve Peterson describes the modeling process

One of the highlights of the conference for me was listening to the story that Steve Peterson and Paul Bothwell told about using Systems Thinking and dynamic modeling to help communities in high-violence Boston neighborhoods.

In their work with the Youth Violence Systems Project, there were two objectives:

  • Improve understanding of community-based violence in Boston
  • Help communities strategize and achieve sustained reductions in violence

What made this project different from other attempts to research and solve the youth violence problem in Boston was that it engaged “the community” in the development of the model.  From the get go, they included youth in the modeling process.  Gang members, in particular, turned out to be an important missing link to understanding violence and the dynamic system behavior.  Both Steve and Paul described some of the harsher realities of working with young people whose family members and friends were victims of violence.  The modeling process actually helped community members to articulate the “slippery slope dynamics” that move youth through the different stocks to gang involvement.  If you have a chance, I highly recommend listening to the audio recording!

Staying Connected

Participants engaged in round table discussions

Having time to interact with other participants was an important part of the conference experience.  It was wonderful to see the excitement and energy that is created when Systems Thinkers have an opportunity to connect with one another.  The cross fertilization that occurs so naturally between field experts, modelers, and educators was inspiring.

Please stay connected and let us know if there are other ways in which we can foster our growing community of STELLA and iThink modelers!

System Dynamics Conference in Seoul

August 10th, 2010 No comments
isee systems is proud to have sponsored the 28th International System Dynamics Conference held in Seoul, Korea last month.  We especially enjoyed supporting the conference again this year through the Barry Richmond Scholarship Award.   The scholarship was established in 2007 to honor and continue the legacy of our company founder, Barry Richmond.  Barry was devoted to helping others become better “Systems Citizens”.  It was his mission to make Systems Thinking and System Dynamics accessible to people of all ages and in all fields.
Presenting the scholarship in Seoul was isee’s longtime consulting and training partner, Mark Heffernan.  Mark had this story to tell about Barry:

I first met Barry 20 years ago, when I had to trudge through the snow to get to his small wooden office.  I was building a discrete event model using STELLA and I wanted him to make some changes to the software so I didn’t have these “egg timer“ structures everywhere.  Barry was horrified with what I had done with his software and said words to the effect that it’s not meant for that, it was created to spread the gospel of System Dynamics.  Despite the fact that I was a civil engineer, he encouraged me to take a look at SD.  Such was his passion and conviction that 20 years later I’m still attending this conference.”

Tony Phuah accepts Scholarship Award from Mark Heffernan

Through most of his career Barry saw education as the key to spreading Systems Thinking.  As a teacher and a mentor, he dedicated much of his time to developing tools and methodologies for learning.  It is fitting therefore that this year’s award was presented to Tony Phuah, a Master’s student in System Dynamics at the University of Bergen.

Tony’s work includes an experimental study that explores the question: How can we improve people’s understanding of basic stock and flow behavior?  His experiment uses two different methods for teaching stock and flow behavior — the standard method (using graphical integration) and a method he calls “running total”.  Tony presented his paper at a parallel session during the conference and it can be downloaded by clicking here.  Although the results of his study favor traditional methods for teaching stock and flow behavior, we all should be encouraged by the work being done to try to improve Systems Thinking education and communication.  In Tony’s own words:

Speeding up ‘Systems Thinkers beget more Systems Thinkers’ growth will make us one step closer to Barry Richmond’s vision of a systems citizen world.”

Congratulations Tony and thank you Mark for helping us to celebrate Barry’s passion!

Applications for the 2011 Barry Richmond Scholarship Award will be available on the isee systems and System Dynamics Society web sites.  Check those sites for more information.

“Tracing Connections” book honors Barry Richmond

June 17th, 2010 7 comments

Barry RichmondBarry Richmond was the founder of isee systems and pioneer in the field of systems thinking.  When his life was cut short by a sudden fatal heart attack, Barry was in the prime of his career and the systems thinking community experienced a collective sense of loss and grief.

Barry was fully engaged in bringing systems thinking to everyone.  He saw how this powerful way of thinking could help people to better understand society’s most pressing issues and make the world a better place.  Barry saw K-12 education as one of the keys to creating a better world.  He spoke often about educating young people to become ”systems citizens” and preparing students for the complex problems they would have to face.  Much of his time was devoted to training teachers to incorporate systems thinking into curricula and pedagogy.

A couple of years ago, Barry’s daughter, Joy Richmond, began spearheading an effort to create a book in honor of her father.  Joy invited a group of us together to talk about some ideas for the book and come up with a plan to make it happen. The first idea we discussed was writing the book that Barry himself had intended to write.  Barry left plenty of notes and even had a working title for a book about systems thinking called Traces.   We all agreed that it would be much too daunting to try to write a book for Barry, so we decided to have a book written in tribute to Barry by friends and colleagues who share his passion for systems thinking.

Steve Peterson, Corey Peck and Khalid Saeed were all part of that original discussion and eager to contribute by writing a chapter.  Each had a story to tell about using Systems Thinking in their work and why it is so important in an increasingly interdependent world.  What better way to honor Barry than writing a book that helped get the word out about systems thinking!

Shaping the Book

Lees Stuntz, Executive Director of the Creative Learning Exchange, was also in on the discussion and excited about asking educators influenced by Barry to contribute their stories. Before we invited other authors however, we wanted to provide some guidelines that would tie the book together and give it a more meaningful context.  I think it was Steve who came up with the idea to use the critical thinking skills first outlined in an article Barry wrote for the System Dynamics Review titled “Systems Thinking: Critical Thinking Skills for the 1990s and Beyond”.   We agreed the systems thinking skills would provide a good foundation for the book and each author could then choose a few of the thinking skills to emphasize when telling their story.

Tracing ConnectionsCountless hours of writing, editing, and designing later, Tracing Connections: Voices of Systems Thinkers was born.  Published in partnership with the Creative Learning Exchange, proceeds from the book will fund scholarships that offer learning opportunities for educators to use systems thinking and system dynamics in K-12 education.  The response so far has been excellent and we are pleased to be funding scholarships to help educators attend the ST/DM Conference later this month.

A Chapter for Everyone

What is especially nice about the book, is that you don’t need to read each chapter in sequence.  Since the authors’ experiences range from education and research to business and public policy, there’s sure to be a chapter for everyone.  Click on the link below to view the chapter by Frank Draper titled “Teaching by Wondering Around: Learning About the World Naturally”.  Frank tells a wonderful story about how Systems Thinking has transformed the way he teaches science to high school students.  After reading it, you’re going to wish you could enroll in one of Frank’s field science classes at Catalina Foothills school district in Tuscon, Arizona.

Teaching by Wondering Around by Frank Draper

Animal Temperature Model

Table of Contents with full list of chapter titles and authors

For more information or to order a copy of Tracing Connections, visit

Modeling the Economic Crisis

March 8th, 2010 1 comment

I’m often asked by customers that are new to Systems Thinking, “How can this approach add value to conceptualizing and understanding common, everyday issues?”  The issues range from business design to environmental concerns to macroeconomic dynamics.  In response to this question, I can tell you from my personal experience, nothing beats seeing a skilled practitioner use our software tools and the Systems Thinking methodology to make sense out of a complex problem.

With this in mind, we collaborated with our consulting and training partner, Lexidyne LLC, to create a new series of video-based presentations focused on common but often misunderstood problems that can be conceptualized, expanded, and then explored using Systems Thinking.  We recently released the first video in this series — Understanding the Economic Crisis presented by Dr. Mark Paich.

Judging from its title, you might think Understanding the Economic Crisis presents a huge complex model of the macro economy.  To the contrary, dynamic modeling expert, Mark Paich, begins with a very simple model of something we all can relate to — the individual consumer.

Stock and flow map of an individual consumer's balance sheet

Mark expands upon the model and shows how a sudden drop in housing prices affects individual consumption.   As you might expect, when Total Net Worth falls, the individual responds by spending less.  When housing prices fall, home equity loans no longer provide the purchasing power for big ticket items like cars, vacation homes and big screen TVs.

The real surprise however, comes when Mark further expands the individual consumer model to include the economy as a whole.  When everyone’s net worth decreases at the same time a phenomena known as the “Paradox of Thrift” occurs. The paradox states that if everyone tries to save money during times of recession, total savings for the overall economy may fall.  The dynamics generated by adding elements of the macro economy to the model are indeed surprising.

Mark’s easily understood model leads to some real insights concerning the policy implications for an economic recovery.   It also provides a great example of how Systems Thinking can be used to deepen your understanding of a complex issue in order to make better decisions.  If you haven’t seen the video, I highly recommend it.  The following trailer highlights some of the key points in Mark’s presentation and will give you a taste of the full presentation.

(If you cannot see the video below in your RSS reader, please visit the post page)

For more information or to purchase Understanding the Economic crisis, click here.

Modeling Real World Challenges Inspires Students

February 4th, 2010 No comments

Last summer I had the opportunity to see students from Diana Fisher’s dynamic modeling class at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon present their modeling projects to participants of the International System Dynamics Society Conference in Albuquerque. The parallel session was filled with educators and professionals from different fields, many of whom are renowned system dynamicists.

I think it is safe to say that we all were very impressed by the quality of the students’ work and how well they understood the dynamics associated with the issues they were presenting.  Perhaps more striking however, was seeing how empowering modeling real-world issues is for young people and the enthusiasm they share for their work.

CC Modeling SystemsNow everyone can see the effect that modeling real-world issues has on students at the CC Modeling Systems web site. Dedicated to helping educators bring dynamic modeling into the classroom, the web site features videos of students presenting their work as compelling evidence to the value of incorporating System Thinking and system dynamics into curriculum.

You’ll be amazed to see what 14-18 year olds are capable of and the excitement they exuberate when addressing challenges such as:

Students are eager to understand the world better and are more than capable of building and understanding relatively sophisticated models in their attempts to understand the dynamics of real-world systems.

—Diana Fisher

Educators and administrators considering dynamic modeling curricula typically face challenges. No matter how compelling the evidence that Systems Thinking and the system dynamics methodology engages students and takes them to a higher level of reasoning, it is still difficult to justify without tying it to National Standards.

The CC Modeling Systems web site devotes an entire section to detailing very specific 21st Century Skills and National Standards addressed by curriculum that incorporates building system dynamics models.   Much of the homework has been done aligning this type of work to standards in the following subject areas:

Many thanks to Diana Fisher for sharing her students and her experiences teaching dynamic modeling with all of us!

To learn more about the modeling course that Diana teaches, I recommend the following links:
Recorded webinar presentation by Diana Fisher
Modeling Dyamic Systems: Lessons for a First Course

Humanities Major Attempts Dynamic Modeling and Survives!

January 15th, 2010 1 comment

This post is written by Rolf Olsen, a participant in our Introduction to Dynamic Modeling with iThink and STELLA workshop held last month in Colorado Springs.  We thought Rolf’s perspective would offer insights for those of you who are new to Systems Thinking or curious about applying dynamic modeling to real-world issues.

Rolf Olsen, Workshop Participant

I was very excited about a last-minute chance to attend the introductory iThink/STELLA workshop, but to be honest, on the flight to Colorado Springs, I started to become apprehensive.  Who was I trying to kid?  Sure, I’d heard the terms “stock” and “flow” and I understood their roles as the nouns and verbs of the software.  I’d even read a few chapters in Barry Richmond’s Introduction to Systems Thinking.  But the first time I started up the software and stared at that blank workspace, I had no clue where to begin!  Adding to my anguish, I was quite certain there would be others there who were much smarter than me and really knew what they were doing.

In college I spent most of my time and energy studying English and French, language, literature, cinema, art history, and so forth. I managed to avoid all higher math like the plague (although I did reasonably well in basic statistics).  My engineer father often reminded me that my degree in Humanities prepared me for almost nothing.  After college, I stumbled into a career in marketing – quite fertile territory for exploring system dynamics and modeling, as it turns out.  I spent a few formative years in an ad agency and at a regional banking system, before finding my stride marketing and managing nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Today I work in marketing and communication in a large academic medical center.

For years I’ve used spreadsheets to model various ‘what if’ scenarios.  In the arts, I used spreadsheets to create budgets and set ticket prices, always seeking ways to better predict revenue from ticket sales at different prices, for different types of performances (e.g., modern dance, string quartet, jazz ensemble), or on different days of the week.

Preparing for the iThink/STELLA workshop, I decided I’d like to try to model demand in a market area for laser vision correction surgery, popularly known as LASIK or PRK.  That seemed simple enough.  I might be able to bluff my way through this workshop after all!

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