How Did We Get Started? A History of Systems Thinking Work in Tucson and Beyond

Our passion is simple – delivering benefits by teaching the Habits and tools of systems thinking. By doing this work with schools, organizations, businesses, teams and individuals, our hope is that they, too, can produce desirable outcomes.

We are often asked, “So, how did the Waters Foundation come to be, anyway?” The answer is interesting, and may not be what you would expect. We are very proud of our roots and wanted to share a bit of our history with you. We hope you enjoy!

If you have questions or would like to know more, drop us a line at info@watersfoundation.org.

Tucson, Arizona – a place known for its stunning wildlife unique to the Sonoran Desert, awe-inspiring mountain ranges, lively artistic community, and, let’s not forget, hot summer months!

But did you know that Tucson is also known for some of its superior educational institutions? From the University of Arizona to nationally recognized Pre-K, elementary, middle and high schools, hundreds of thousands of students in the Tucson region are fortunate to be exposed to innovative learning techniques and curriculum.

The Waters Foundation is proud to have helped pioneer one of these schools of thinking in the region: systems thinking.

Before we get to how this began, let’s go back to the early 1950s – when system dynamics got its start. Dr. Jay Forrester of MIT initially created system dynamics during the mid-1950s, and further developed these ideas throughout his career.

In an effort to share this principle of thought with other like-minded individuals, he held one-day conference sessions at MIT in the early 1980s. Jim Waters, founder of the Waters Corporation, a publicly-traded, analytical science solutions company, began attending these sessions, which spurred his interest in system dynamics as an important life skill.

A firm believer in the power of education, Mr. Waters had many conversations with Jay Forrester about integrating the principles of system dynamics into a K-12 environment. A scientist, entrepreneur and natural “systems thinker,” Mr. Waters saw the value of systems thinking for young people and was intrigued by its close ties to scientific thinking.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon Brown, the Dean of Engineering at MIT and a friend and confidant of Mr. Waters, shared a similar vision. Coincidentally, he happened to retire in the foothills region of Tucson. So, in 1987, he walked into District Superintendent Bob Hetzel’s office of the Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD) in Tucson, and made his case, with the long-distance support of Jay Forrester, about how systems thinking and system dynamics could enhance the way K-12 students and their teachers thought about learning.

Recognizing that this initiative would support critical thinking and innovative learning that were already focal points in the district, the superintendent was on board with Dr. Brown’s proposition.

Dr. Hetzel facilitated Dr. Brown’s introduction to Orange Grove Middle School’s principal Mary Scheetz and district science teachers, Frank Draper and Mark Swanson, who began using computer simulations and systems thinking tools to help students better understand the systems they were studying. As teachers in other subjects saw the potential of systems thinking and system dynamics, the number and variety of “systems lessons” grew and a buzz about the work in CFSD had begun ….

Still in close contact with Dr. Brown and Jay Forrester, when Jim Waters learned that educators and students in Tucson were applying systems thinking concepts and activities in schools, he jumped at the opportunity to become involved.

He and his wife Faith, a former teacher, flew from their home state of Massachusetts to Tucson to see how the systems thinking work was unfolding in classrooms.

Jim and Faith were impressed with and inspired by what they saw. They had the opportunity to hear from students about their systems thinking work, including decisions they made for their simulations. Jim and Faith also had the opportunity to meet with teachers and administrators, and contributed their thoughts and perspectives to the learning happening in CFSD schools.

But Jim and Faith did not want to stop there. They believed then what they believe to this day: that systems thinking can make the world a better place. By empowering students to think broadly, innovatively, collaboratively (while staying mindful of outcomes and consequences), they can create successful lives for themselves and contribute to the world in important, positive ways.

The Waters Foundation launched its first Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling Partnership at Orange Grove Middle School in the Catalina Foothills School District in 1989. This first Waters Foundation grant had two goals: to build teachers’ capacities for enhancing student thinking and to provide the staff with tools to improve the school’s organization and culture – and that it did. CFSD has since become nationally recognized by other districts as a model for its systems thinking work.

In the years that followed, between 1991-1995, what started as one site in Tucson grew to 14 sites across the country, with varying geographic and educational settings (rural, urban, suburban, private, public, charter). From our nation’s capital, to Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Oregon, Vermont and Iowa, the Waters Foundation was working with local educators who were implementing systems thinking in schools and impacting the lives of students, teachers and communities.

This work went global in 1998, with international work in Singapore. Today, the Waters Foundation has worked in over ten countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Columbia, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines and Turkey.

The work in the United States has expanded to Alabama, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. The work has continued in Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, and as a testament to the important work that started in Arizona back in the late 1980s, the Waters Foundation has a presence in hundreds of schools across the state (many of which are in Tucson).

Several post-secondary partnerships have also been established, including the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes connected to Rutgers University; the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona; University of Texas, San Antonio; University of Wisconsin; and the Social System Design Lab at Washington University in St. Louis.

Sharing Mr. and Mrs. Waters’ drive, passion and belief that systems thinking could change the world, Waters Foundation leadership knew that the work should not end with students. The same Habits of a Systems Thinker used with students are applicable and beneficial to everyone of all ages, professions and walks of life. “From the classroom to the boardroom,” systems thinking can provide tools needed to fuel individual and collective success.

The Waters Foundation is proud to have provided resources and materials to General Electric, Kaiser Permanente, Linea Directa, SpaceX, Starbucks and The Home Depot.

Non-profit and foundation partnerships include: United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Winona YMCA, Battelle For Kids, ECEV Foundation (Turkey), Los Angeles Universal Preschools (LAUP), Stuart Foundation, WestEd, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Throughout all of the growth and evolution, the mission of the Waters Foundation remains the same: to deliver lifetime benefits through the application of systems thinking. Or, as Jim and Faith Waters would put it – to make the world a better place.