Who We Are

Explore the timeline below to learn about the journey of the Waters Center.

Mr. Waters Learns of System Dynamics

Jim Waters, founder of the Waters Corporation, a publicly-traded, analytical science solutions company, attended sessions on system dynamics led by Dr. Jay Forrester of MIT. This spurred Mr. Waters’ interest in system dynamics as an important life skill. Mr. Waters and Dr. Forrester conversed about the importance of integrating these ideas into a K-12 environment. Mr. Waters became interested in the potential of investing in K-12 environments to foster learning about complex, dynamic systems.


Systems Thinking Implemented in Tucson School District

Gordon Brown, a community member who was a retired Dean of Engineering from MIT, walked into the District Superintendent’s office of Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD) in Tucson, Arizona. Encouraged by Dr. Jay Forrester, Dr. Brown was convinced that systems thinking and system dynamics could enhance the way K-12 students and their teachers engaged in learning. The superintendent came to the same conclusion and facilitated the use of simulations and systems thinking tools by students. A buzz began to circulate around the district and the systems work in classrooms grew.


Waters Foundation, Systems Thinking in Education is Born

Jim Waters learned about the systems work in Tucson. He and his wife, Faith, a former teacher, visited CFSD in Tucson, Arizona to see the work firsthand. They joined teachers in both team meetings and staff meetings and engaged with students in classrooms. Mr. and Mrs. Waters decided to get involved and bring their vision of implementing systems thinking in schools to fruition. The Waters Foundation launched its Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling Partnerships in 1989. The first Waters Foundation grant had two goals: to build teachers’ capacity for enhancing student thinking and to provide the staff with tools to improve the school’s organization and culture.


Scaling-Up: Waters Foundation Systems Thinking Work Spreads Across the Country

What started as one site in Tucson grew to 14 sites throughout the U.S. The Waters Foundation provided funding to these sites within a wide variety of geographic and educational settings (e.g. rural, urban, suburban, and public, private, charter).


Continuing Growth through Collaborative Action Research

During the summer of 2000, approximately 50 people representing all 14 sites travelled to Ann Arbor, Michigan for three days of action research training. During this meeting, the group established the expectation that each site would train and support teachers conducting action research around a question of significance and interest that focused on the impact of systems thinking integration. Five years of collaborative action research were conducted at each research, development, and dissemination site and each summer national gatherings were held to report findings, network, collaborate and provide opportunities for deeper learning.


The Launch of Capacity Building Workshops

Level 1 and Level 2 systems thinking workshops were developed to build the capacity of educators to begin independently implementing systems thinking concepts, habits, and tools within their work with students and/or staff.


The Establishment of Regional Project Centers

The 14 sites were consolidated into five project centers responsible for professional development and outreach in their local areas.

  • Catalina Foothills, Tucson, AZ
  • Greater Tucson, AZ
  • Cedar Rapids, IA
  • Bruswick, GA
  • Portland, OR

After a few years, centers consolidated at three main geographical locations: Tucson, AZ; Portland, OR; and St. Louis, MO.


Making Learning Accessible Through WebED

Realizing that many educators might not have available resources to attend in-person workshops, the Waters Foundation began creating free, online learning modules (the content of which is similar to what is found in the capacity-building workshops).


Taking Our Work on the Road! Regional and National Systems Thinking Events

St. Louis became the first location to host a Waters Foundation Systems Thinking Institute, a capacity-building structure that brings together experienced practitioners and those new to the work from the region. In 2011, the Waters Foundation also helped to launch Camp Snowball, a multi-faceted learning event that included a number of sessions highlighting systems thinking. The event was again hosted in Tucson in 2012. Multiple partners from throughout the United States collaborated to plan the event.

The Waters Foundation has also hosted multi-day Institutes in Milwaukee (2017 & 2018), Tucson (2017) and Indianapolis (2019). These Institutes have welcomed participants from around the world.


Setting the Stage for Lasting Change

Based on experience, the Waters Foundation created a plan to assist schools and districts interested in adopting and integrating systems thinking into classroom instruction and organizational learning. The plan includes workshop opportunities and follow-up coaching for a minimum of three years, culminating in the local educators’ capacity to provide future systems thinking workshops and coaching themselves. This is called the "facilitators in training" model.


The Waters Center for Systems Thinking 501(c)3 Non-Profit

What began as a special project of the Waters Foundation over 30 years ago evolved to become its own entity: the Waters Center for Systems Thinking. The Waters Center is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization delivering benefits through systems thinking to schools, districts, organizations and communities around the world.

We have a leadership headquarters in Tucson, AZ and an operations headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. We are committed to providing the tools necessary to make positive, lasting change to the many systems and teams that we have the pleasure of working with.


Thinking Tools Studio

In an effort to make systems thinking learning accessible to people around the world and across age groups, the Waters Center launched Thinking Tools Studio — a free, online self-guided learning platform. Thinking Tools Studio offers courses on the Habits and tools of systems thinking in addition to resources like templates, facilitation guides, lesson plans and more.

The Studio is a place to learn and apply the fundamentals of systems thinking. It is suitable for new learners, seasoned practitioners, and everyone in between.


Pivoting for the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes and challenges, including a halt to in-person systems thinking workshops, and for many people, a stay-at-home or shelter in place order. The Waters Center, determined to continue our mission of offering systems thinking learning to anyone who wants to learn, pivoted our work to 100% virtual during this time.

This included weekly Open Studio webinars, offered at two different times to accommodate time zones and international participants. Open Studio webinars began as a progression of the Thinking Tools Studio and feature Waters Center staff and guest speakers examining a variety of topics through a systems thinking lens. From April 2020-June 2021, Open Studio welcomed close to 1,000 guests from 39 countries. In addition to Open Studio, Waters Center launched Building Pathways for Systems Thinkers virtual forums. These unique events welcome hundreds of participants, renowned guest speakers and stakeholders. 2020 and 2021 Forum topics included Early Childhood, Healthcare and School Leadership. Each forum participant is mailed a toolkit full of systems thinking resources and supplies to assist learning during the event and beyond.


Waters Center for Systems Thinking Advanced Facilitator Credential

In an effort to scale systems thinking capacity-building opportunities and to offer an advanced learning opportunity, the Waters Center launched the Systems Thinking Advanced Facilitator Credential.

Designed for experienced systems thinkers who are interested in advancing their skills and capacities, the credential denotes a highly-skilled systems thinking practitioner prepared and committed to sharing the benefits and uses of systems thinking with others in a professional environment.


In Memory of James “Jim” L. Waters

Systems thinkers make the world a better place.

This was the belief of our founder, Jim Waters, who passed away peacefully on May 17, 2021 at the age of 95. Jim’s approach to learning and life make up the fabric of the Waters Center for Systems Thinking— and we were privileged to have Jim as an active part of our work, providing guidance, counsel, and friendship up until his passing. Jim’s legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of learners around the world for generations to come. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to know Jim and to carry out his mission of delivering benefits — something we will continue to do in his honor.