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

2005 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 the five modules were developed and tested in two graduate-level sustainable agriculture courses at Iowa State University in 2003 and 2004. The final model, which will serve as an introductory exercise covering important concepts related to dynamic systems and feedback processes was completed in 2005, and will be tested in an upcoming sustainable agriculture course. Work to incorporate the five modules into an interactive series of learning exercises has been initiated, and the final educational package will be completed in 2006.

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 processes. In the long term, it is expected that individuals who approach agricultural management decisions with an understanding of systems, will be more likely to make effective, long-lasting contributions to agricultural sustainability.


All of the proposed educational modules have been constructed. Four of the five models were tested in graduate-level sustainable agriculture courses at Iowa State University. One 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 integrated pest management modules were included in the curriculum of a course entitled Ecologically Based Pest Management Strategies, which was taught in 2004. The three pest management modules focused on (1) weed population dynamics in diversified cropping systems, (2) biological control of soybean aphid and (3) integrated management of the disease, apple scab. The pest management modules will be refined and tested a final time in a graduate course offering in fall 2006. Work is underway to improve the nutrient cycling module, which will also be completed this year. A module based on crop growth was developed in 2005. This model, which explores important concepts related to dynamic systems and feedback processes, will serve as an introductory lesson in the completed educational package. Assembly of the educational package will be completed in 2006.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In 2003 and 2004, 25 graduate students from 9 majors within the college of agriculture at Iowa State University participated in courses that utilized modules developed through our project. 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 that 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 our set 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