PSU teams compete in Map the System challenge for social change

Interactive map demonstrating systems thinking

On April 30th, three teams of Portland State students competed in the Map the System PSU finals, a contest in which students take a systems thinking approach to explore a social, economic or environmental challenge and determine the interconnections and relationships that make the issue persist. The winning team will advance to the Map the System global finals, hosted by the University of Oxford.

“Systems thinking is a tool that is used to understand the root causes, symptoms and factors that hold the status quo in its place,” said Abby Chroman, program manager of social innovation and entrepreneurship at PSU and part of the Map the System planning team, along with Ingrid Anderson, assistant professor of practice in early childhood education, and Michelle Swinehart, senior instructor in University Studies. “[The Map the System competition] is skill-building for students to be changemakers.” 

The three teams competing in this year’s challenge came from colleges across the university, tackling complicated societal issues including conspiracy theories, social determinants of health and equity in early childhood education. Teams were asked to research the root causes and symptoms of their problem, learn about existing efforts to solve the problem and the links and gaps among those efforts, and identify levers of change that could be used to solve the problem.

“Systems thinking is one of the ways of really deeply understanding interconnections so that solutions are for the greater good of all,” said Anderson. “This is a tool that is used to understand the root causes, not just symptoms, so it’s really interesting work because it can impact so many different areas.”

Each of the three PSU teams chose to tackle a large and timely social issue related to this year’s theme: Systems Reset. The teams were judged on a visual systems map, a paper, and a 10 minute recorded presentation showing what they had learned. 

The systems of conspiracy theories

Team 1 is made up of Dashne Abdulghafour, Alex Bok, Andrew Sulak and Crystal Van Wyk, all MBA students in PSU’s School of Business. Team 1 chose to explore the problem of conspiracy theories and focused their research on four elements: how conspiracy theories affect social systems, how conspiracy theories form, what makes a person believe in conspiracy theories and who are the stakeholders believing, creating and pushing conspiracy theories. 

The team created an interactive map showing elements involved in conspiracy theories and how these elements interact with each other. For example, the map depicts how a trigger event can lead to feelings of fear or sadness that can drive people to experience a need for certainty, which can make them more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. 

They found that the element with the highest number of connections to their systems map was the need for certainty. 

“The spread of conspiracy theories can be contained by developing critical thinking mindsets,” the team wrote in their paper. “Our need for certainty drives our decision-making processes, and bad faith actors have figured out how to co-opt it for their desires to accumulate wealth, fame, and/or power.” 

Social determinants of health and Oregon regional health systems

Team 2 is made up of Devlin Prince and Anaeliz “Mina” Colon, both PhD students in health systems & policy in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. They explored how regional health systems within the state of Oregon have been tasked with addressing social determinants of health—non-medical factors that can influence well-being—in their communities. As part of their project, the team conducted a systematic review of twelve Coordinated Care Organizations (COO) within Oregon and compared how different organizations addressed social determinants of health. They then created an interactive map showing each CCO and the social determinants of health each organization is currently addressing. 

“By reviewing the map, focus can be placed on one regional health system at a time and evaluate which social determinants of health are being addressed and which ones are missing,” wrote Team 2 in their paper. “By viewing the map in its entirety, focus can be placed on overall state coverage of social determinants of health and gaps.”

Access, equity and voice in early childhood

Team 3 is Anna Koelle, who is pursuing a Master degree in early childhood education and inclusive education in PSU’s College of Education. Koelle explored the systems that prevent early childhood programs from addressing issues of access and equity and engaging in anti-bias education. Team 3’s map depicted who has a seat at the table—and who does not—when it comes to addressing these issues, and showed how the pandemic might be an opportunity for reimaging early childhood education and for integrating anti-bias work.

“Collective bargaining and other collective actions have traction to demand states start to strategically and equitably invest in early care and education in conjunction with early childhood educators, children and families,” Koelle wrote in their paper. “The need for early care and education is starting to see state and national investments made. To create equitable systems of care that promote access, agency, and voice, collective action is needed.”

Winning team to heat to university of Oxford’s Map the System global finals

Laura Burney Nissen, Presidential Futures Fellow and professor of social work at PSU, Olivia Cleaveland, constituent relations and policy liaison for Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, and Carlos Mena, the Nike professor of supply chain management at PSU, judged the competition. 

Team 1 (Crystal Van Wyk, Andrew Sulak, Dashne Abdulghafour, and Alex Bok), the team that explored the systems that perpetuate conspiracy theories, won the PSU finals. The team will compete for cash prizes in the Map the System global finals in June. 

This article was originally written by Summer Allen and published on May 3rd, 2021. You can see her original story here.

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