Developing Educational Tools to Facilitate Systems Thinking in Sustainable Agriculture in the North Central Region

2004 Annual Report for GNC03-018

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2003: $9,862.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Matt Liebman
Iowa State University

Developing Educational Tools to Facilitate Systems Thinking in Sustainable Agriculture in the North Central Region


We are in the process of developing an educational package consisting of five interactive, model-based modules. Collectively the five modules will provide students with tools for exploring dynamic ecological processes in sustainable agricultural systems. Four of five proposed modules have been constructed and were tested in two graduate-level sustainable agriculture courses at Iowa State University in 2003 and 2004. Work on the fifth model is currently underway. Feedback from students and collaborators is being used to refine existing modules before their incorporation into the final educational package, which will be completed in fall 2005.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The primary goal of this project is to develop a modeling-based educational package for use by educators and students of sustainable agriculture in the North Central region. Specific project objectives are (1) to provide a means by which agricultural educators can introduce systems thinking techniques into the classroom, and (2) to develop a set of tools that will aid students in constructing mental models of ecological relationships that influence agroecosystem function. In the short term, these educational materials will enhance the ability of students to integrate knowledge and to develop an understanding of agriculture based on awareness of complexity, dynamic interactions and feedback mechanisms. In the long term, it is expected that individuals who approach agricultural management decisions with an understanding of systems, rather than fragmented knowledge of their constituent parts, will be more likely to make effective, long-lasting contributions to agricultural sustainability, in the North Central region and beyond.


Four of the five proposed educational modules have been constructed and were recently tested in two graduate-level sustainable agriculture courses at Iowa State University. The first module, developed around a model of nutrient transformations and transport in integrated crop and livestock farming systems, was tested in fall 2003, in a course entitled Integrated Crop and Livestock Production Systems. Additionally, three pest management modules were included in the curriculum of a course entitled Ecologically Based Pest Management Strategies, which was taught in 2004. The pest management modules focused on weed population dynamics in diversified cropping systems, biological control of soybean aphid and integrated management of the disease, apple scab. Tested modules are being refined based on student and collaborator feedback. A fifth module, devoted to management influences on crop-weed competition, is currently under development. This model will serve as the introductory lesson in the final educational package. Assembly of the educational package will be completed in 2005. Distribution of the completed project is scheduled to begin in early 2006.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In 2003, 10 students from three majors within the college of agriculture at Iowa State University participated in Integrated Crop and Livestock Production Systems, a course that included prototype learning module outputs of this project. One outcome of model-based learning in this course was three student developed agroecosystem/nutrient model systems. In 2004, 25 graduate students from nine majors in the college of agriculture participated in Ecologically Based Pest Management Strategies, a course that also incorporated module outputs of this project. One outcome of this course was the development of six student developed agroecosystem/pest model systems. Educational materials developed through this project will remain in the curriculum of both of the above mentioned courses in 2005 and 2006 when they are once again offered.

Student feedback thus far indicates that the model-based learning exercises contribute to the capacity for applying a systems perspective to issues in sustainable agriculture. As one student put it, “building and evaluating models allowed me to consider the interactions between the parts of the system”. Another student noted that model building forced him to “consider what information was lacking and what assumptions were being made”. Students and educators alike have reported that the development of model systems by students themselves represents the most powerful output of the curriculum being developed through this project. A student who participated in both of the Iowa State courses which featured educational materials associated with this project told developers that he was “…convinced that modeling has great potential to refine research questions so that the most promising [solutions to agricultural problems] can be explored in the field.” As we move to complete the development of educational tools to facilitate systems thinking in sustainable agriculture, we are optimistic that results obtained from our testing of these materials at Iowa State University can be transferred to students at other universities in the North Central region.


Matt Liebman

Major Professor