Agronomy 375: ” A Systems View of Life” Fall 2016



What is a system? How can I learn to see systems? How can I use systems thinking to solve the ‘wicked problems’ facing our planet? Questions such as these drive the content in this course.

Agronomy 375 (“Special Topics”) primarily is a student-driven discussion-based class. The majority of class time will be devoted to engaging you in activities and hearing from you and your classmates.


In this course, you will learn to:

  1. Name the basic characteristics of a system.  Give examples of each.
  2. Learn to recognize (“see”) systems and to name their elements, including feedback loops, stocks and flows, hierarchies, self-organization, and limiting factors.
  3. For a given system, identify the elements, interconnections, and function.
  4. Demonstrate the use of these questions in your journal writing, activities, and projects:  “How did we get here?” “What holds the present in place?” “Who benefits from things the way they currently are?” “What is missing?”
  5. Explain the concept of Systems Thinking, including identifying the parts of a system, feedback loops in a system, and being able to name at least 5 different systems in the world around them.
  6. Describe the nature of questions.  In your description, give examples of who gets to ask questions, how the questions asked determine what you can learn, how asking questions may act on the subject of the question, which questions are missing.
  7. Create and class test components of a new sustainability course to be taught next fall (mythically titled UW 100, A Systems View of Life), including activities, readings, and assignments.



You begin the semester with 1000 points. If you keep all of these points (or if you don’t lose more than 90 of them), you will receive an A. The chart below shows grades and point ranges.

Letter Grade Point Range Grade Point Vaule
A 1000-910 4
AB 909-890 3.5
B 889-810 3
BC 809-790 2.5
C 789-700 2
D 699-600 1
F 599-0 0

You lose points for doing things that detract from the class as a whole (such as coming late to class) or make extra work for your instructors (such as turning in assignments late).  Here are the details:

Attendance, Punctuality and Participation

Attendance (-75 points for each unexcused absence)

Attendance is absolutely mandatory in order to succeed in this class. You have one unexcused absence; beyond this, each absence costs you 75 points. For an absence to be excused, such as for travel to a conference or for a contagious illness, contact both Dr. Molly Jahn and Dr. Cathy Middlecamp by email at least 24 hours before the class period. Last minute family or health emergencies are exceptions to this rule. For cases such as these, contact your professors as soon as you are able. They will do their best to work something out with you, accommodating your needs.

Arrive on time to class (-25 points for each unexcused tardiness)

Like attending, coming on time to class is absolutely mandatory. After the first week of class, you are not allowed any late entries (9:31 am is late). Each lateness costs you 25 points. If for some reason you cannot make class on time, please let your professors know at the start of the semester. They will work something out with you. If you drive to campus, plan so that you don’t get caught in an accident on the Beltline. if you take a bus, consider taking an earlier one. OK, we know. You live in Wisconsin where it is known to snow, sleet, and get windy and foggy. Please be safe on the sidewalks, streets, and highways.

Participation (-10 points per “unspent” chip)

This semester, we will experiment with a method of class participation: Talking Chips. At the start of class, you will get 1-3 chips depending on the type of activity planned. The more discussion, the more chips you will receive. Each time you contribute to the class discussion, you “spend” a chip. Once you run out, you have to remain silent until everyone else has used up their chips. If at the end of a class discussion you still have chips, you lose 10 points per chip.


Unless otherwise specified, all assignments are due at NOON on Monday. An assignment that is late (12:01 pm) or not turned in will result in a deduction of 25 points

1. Your Weekly Journal (-10 points if late, -25 points if missing)

Starting in the second week in the semester, write a journal entry. Each week, use this document. Preview the document as your template. In your writing, aim to link either a concept from class or a reading from class to your daily life. As you write, use questions such as these to guide your thinking: “What is missing or in some way not represented?” “How did we end up where we are today?” “What holds the present in place?” “Who benefits from keeping things the way they currently are?” Each entry should be between 500 and 1000 words.

2. Occasional Assignments (-10 points if late, -25 points if missing)

Now and then, you’ll find assignments on the calendar. The first one invites you to dive into the text, the Systems View of Life. Look the assignment on Thursday, the first week of class.

3. Final Project (-25 points if late, -100 points if missing)

Your final task of the semester is to design and present and individual course module for UW 100, A Systems View of Life. Each individual module will fit into the syllabus generated by the class in Assignment 5.

4. Class Presentation

Each student will have 30-40 minutes in class to present their individual module. Each presentation should be at least 8 slides, and needs to include the following information:

1. Title slide with your name and a photo of your choice
2. Title of your Module
3. Rationale: Why you selected this as a module
4. Learning objective of your module
5. List of materials to accompany your module (readings,podcasts, videos, etc.)
6. How your Module relates to systems thinking
7. How your Module Fits into “UW 100 A Systems View of Life” and the other Modules
8. Your activity

Classroom Rules and Conduct

Be respectful of all ideas, contributions and comments from students and instructors.
Absolutely no plagiarism. If you are caught using somebody else’s work without proper attribution, you will lose100 points and a letter will be put in your file at the Dean of Student’s Office. Please read our campus web page on Academic Integrity.
Other rules? Please suggest them.




Cover.jpg Required Reading


Free PDF Available Here


 Free PDF Available Here