Systems Approaches to Regional Sustainability

Course description

What does sustainability mean? How can science contribute to understanding global sustainability challenges, and finding solutions? What other factors must scientists consider when tackling sustainability problems?

Contemporary scientists agree that solutions to complex global challenges such as environmental sustainability call for “systems thinking”: the process of understanding how component elements influence each other within a whole. Systems thinking as an approach to problem-solving argues that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation.

A scientific approach to examining our planet that embraces systems thinking therefore demands that we consider landscapes, regions or whole continents as systems. In such a system, elements such as land, air, water, climate, plants, animals, and even human societies interact in ways that influence the long-term dynamics and persistence of the system.

ISCI 360 is designed to challenge students to draw together knowledge and learning from a range of scientific disciplines and to pursue a systems-thinking approach in the investigation of sustainability of selected regions of the world. This approach is based on the argument that to understand sustainability, we also need to understand unsustainability. Any region of the world needs to be understood as an integrated system before we can understand what will happen when that system is perturbed. ISCI 360 therefore considers input from multiple scientific (and some social science) disciplines to try to answer questions such as:

  • How does the underlying geology of a region affect water systems? How do water systems affect nutrient cycling, and thus marine and terrestrial ecosystems?
  • How do hydrological and atmospheric systems interact?
  • How is human activity affecting global climate?
  • What kinds of feedback exist between climate and cryosphere (the frozen components of the earth system)?
  • How has this affected food availability and security, and thus human settlement?

The intention is to focus on the broad connections and interconnections, rather than studying any one component in depth.

ISCI 360 may be completed as a standalone course, and is also a recommended precursor to ISCI 361: Field Course, A Systems Approach to Regional Sustainability that will pursue and deepen the systems thinking approach by facilitating application of systems thinking to a case study region of the world. This course should be of interest to science students in any disciplines; indeed maximizing diversity of student participation will maximize the richness of in-class and online discussions.

Class time and activities

ISCI 360 combines two hours of weekly class time, weekly pre-class reading and/or viewing, and group project work. Disciplinary experts from across UBC and the Lower Mainland lead an in-class session each week, which will introduce and review general principles of each system component (for example, hydrology), offering examples from selected relevant global locations. Selection of sub-topics and guest speakers will vary from year to year.

Learning objectives

After completing ISCI 360, you should be able to:

  • Implement and evaluate a framework with which to analyze and address global problems.
  • Discuss the ways that different sciences can and should contribute to the promotion of global sustainability.
  • Describe the principles of systems thinking, and explain its importance as an approach to thinking about complex, global problems.
  • Understand the fundamental connectedness of geological, hydrological, ecological, atmospheric and human systems, and the contributions of different scientific disciplines to their study.
  • Outline the connected factors that have influenced evolution of example regional systems.

Assessment and grading

The overarching goal of ISCI 360 is not that you acquire in-depth knowledge in a single area, but rather that you become more adept at recognizing and understanding connections within global and regional systems. The assessments in this course are designed to help you realize this learning outcome by promoting regular systems thinking about selected example systems.

The exact percentage breakdowns shown here may change. The following grading scheme should be approximately accurate and indicates the components upon which grades will be based.

Component Weight
Pre-reading reflections
In-class activities
Online discussions
flex points
Midterm exam 30
Project 40
Final exam 30
Total 100

Pre-reading reflections

To prepare, most guest lectures will require completion of some pre-class reading or other activity. There will be a short online reflection before each lecture. Clear, concise, and thoughtful reflections will be awarded flex points. Since they pertain to that day's lecture, late submissions will not be accepted. Please allow ample buffer in your schedule when completing your reflections to account for unexpected circumstances. These include things such as moderate illness, conflicts with other courses, extracurricular obligations, job interviews, etc.

In-class activities

Some classes will include activities, such as worksheets or i>clicker polls related to the topic of the day. There will also be opportunities to ask questions of guest lecturers.


There will be a couple assignments to be completed as homework. These assignments will challenge you to develop and practice systems thinking via online modeling software.

Online discussions

Being a blended course, online discussion will be encouraged, where possible.

Midterm exam

The midterm exam for this course will be in-class and will include multiple choice and some short-answer written questions. These questions will be based on both the lecture material and the assigned pre-lecture readings.


The systems modeling project will require you to do science by coming up with a question, developing a systems model to answer it, and exploring the predictions that your model produces. In science your conclusions have to follow from evidence — likewise, this project should generate data/results that you must interpret. You might have ideas of how a system works but you can't say for sure until you construct a model and check if it confirms your preconceptions. On the contrary, the results may challenge your thinking, forcing you to re-evaluate your thinking of how the system works. That's how science progresses.

The project is intended to let you investigate your own ideas about a topic in regional (or even global) sustainability. Let the guest lecturers inspire you — you are welcome to choose a topic closely related to one of the talks you hear or something else you're passionate about.

We'll develop the project in stages. In low-stakes, early assignments you will learn to use a user-friendly systems-modeling simulation environment. Once you've become skilled with the environment you will be set free to explore your own interests. Your project will develop with feedback from your peers so you can answer an interesting question in sustainability by the final stage. In total you should expect two solo assignment stages (for flex points) and two group project stages.

An important aspect of scientific study is peer-review. A scientist must be able to convince their academic peers that their investigation is worth pursuing, their methods are sound, and their conclusions follow. This process encourages both the reviewers and the scientist being reviewed to think critically — a valuable skill. Therefore, we will employ peer review in our project. At each stage you will review submissions from your peers and they will review yours.

Beyond the benefits listed above, this project will help give a better appreciation of how systems work. For example, you will be constructing models containing reinforcing and stabilizing feedbacks. Getting "hands-on" experience will help you develop a deep understand how these feedbacks work and their consequences in a system. Likewise, the task of formalizing your thoughts into a quantitative model will help you expose and correct flaws in your reasoning.

This project will give you confidence in your own ability to think scientifically.

Please note that because of the peer review process, each stage of your project must be submitted by the deadlines to be given.

Final exam

The final exam will include multiple choice questions and some short-answer written questions. These questions will be based on both the lecture material and the assigned pre-lecture readings.

Our goal is to create a final exam that requires you to answer a few questions on the core themes of sustainability and systems thinking, and then allows you to choose to respond to a few questions from a range of questions on different themes addresses week by week throughout the course. We hope that this allows you to focus your study time on themes that you are most interested in, that you perhaps invested more effort in reading about or discussing during the term, and/or that allow you to use skills and knowledge from your other areas of study.

Flex points and flex weight

Student participation in the guest lectures is an essential part of learning about system elements. Flex points will be rewarded in class as incentives to be punctual and participate in classes. One flex point will be automatically rewarded each week for showing up to class on time. An additional flex point may be earned for participating in the guest lectures by asking insightful questions and otherwise furthering the discussion or in-class activities. Flex points may also be awarded for optional “ad hoc” assignments.

Students can earn an unlimited number of flex points over the term; at the end of the course they will be used to modify the weights of the following components of the course:

  • Midterm exam
  • Project
  • Final exam

At the end of the course the accumulated flex points will be translated into flex weight according to the following formula:

The weight of each student's worst component will be reduced by their accumulated flex points and the weight of the best component increased accordingly. By earning flex points you can tailor the grading scheme to favour your learning style!


Rikky does well on projects and assignments but lousy on tests. He scores 90% on the assignments and project, 70% on the midterm, and 60% on the final exam. With the default grading scheme Rikky would earn an overall grade of 75%. But throughout the course Rikky earned 10 flex weight (from 19 flex points), so the weights of his best and worst component are adjusted as shown:

Component Rikky's score Weight before flex Weight after flex
Midterm exam 70 30 30
Project 90 (best) 40 50=40+10
Final exam 60 (worst) 30 20=30-10
Rikky's overall grade   75 78

So, Rikky is able to increase his overall grade from 75% to 78% just by attending and participating in class.

Required Materials

You will need the following from the bookstore:


Additional course content is available to registered students via Canvas:

  • Announcements
  • Readings and quizzes
  • Lecture Slides
  • Assignments
  • Grades

To log in, please click on the CWL Login button below:

Registration Details

2023W T1 (M 4-6)