considering feedback cycles in policy decisions
National Sustainability Standards (Student Ages 14–18)1

The System Dynamics (SD) modeling method aligns extremely well with the standards promoting sustainability education. The first reason the alignment fits so well is because the software used for this type of modeling is very accessible. The software is visual, it uses full words or phrases to identify the individual icons that represent a component in the model structure, dependencies of one part upon another can be explicitly displayed. This makes the tool appealing to a wide range of students.

The second reason is that most issues of sustainability involve complex systems that are governed by feedback. SD modeling has as its fundamental approach the study of how feedback affects the behavior of complex systems. By constructing models to study systemic problems students begin to understand the interconnected parts. Each part is connected to other parts using simple algebra not complicated formulas. Modeling segments can be added to the models to test policies recommended to mitigate problems in the system. The process of testing these policies can help identify whether the policies represent potential long-term solutions or are merely useful in the short term, exhibiting unintended (undesirable) consequences in the long-term.

There already exist a significant number of SD models that address issues of sustainability, such as climate change, natural resource depletion, Tragedy of the Commons issues, pollution, toxic waste disposal, urban dynamics/unemployment, spread of epidemics, to mention just a few. Additional models could be developed to address many of the other issues presented below but not listed in the previous sentence. All of these models are accessible to a high school level audience. If students were creating models as projects they could be directed to review the documents and study the activities of the organizations listed within the Social and Cultural Systems section below.

The late Barry Richmond, a world-class System Dynamics modeler worked to foster within the K-12 System Dynamics teaching community a call to action, suggesting that students who gain expertise, as they study systems thinking and dynamic modeling of complex systems become System Citizens and apply their new knowledge in the world around them. This should become as much a part of their education as learning the modeling techniques.



  • Students forward an ethical argument on how sustainable resource use today can lead to basic human needs (e.g. food, water, energy and shelter) being met for future generations (e.g. 100 years in the future).


  • Systems Thinking—Students identify an unsustainable system (e.g. apartheid, colonization. fossil fuel energy) and redesign it using systems thinking principles (e.g. long-term, interconnectedness, leverage points).
  • Cradle-to-Cradle Design—Students explain the continuous cycling of biological and technical nutrients for a cradle-to-cradle designed product or system.

Ecological Systems

  • Respect for Limits—Students collect data in order to investigate and analyze how personal consumption patterns affect the sustainability of natural and human communities.
  • Respect for Nature—Students participate in outdoor education activities to explore and experience the natural environment and enrich their connection with and appreciation for nature. They read nature-related poetry/writings and discuss and compare the authors’ styles and impact on themselves and society.
  • Biomimicry—Students design a product or service to address a problem or issue using one or more characteristics from a plant or animal.
  • Tragedy of the Commons—Students identify local and global “commons,” choose one “commons” and debate with their peers the question, “How can this commons be managed in a way that ensures future generations have the opportunity to use and enjoy it, indefinitely?”
  • Environmental Justice—Students identify an environmental justice issue in their community (e.g. location of toxic waste facility in poor neighborhood) and write an article (or blog) for the school or local paper that includes possible solutions to remedy the injustice.
  • Urban Design/Land Management—Students develop a sustainable land-use plan for an un- or under- developed property or place in their community that provides for a healthy environment, economy, and society.
  • Natural Capital—Students identify the natural capital of a local or global resource and create a graph depicting their relative worth.

Economic Systems

  • Poverty—Students explain the history, causes and potential solutions to poverty in the U.S. and around the world through using the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
  • Ecosystem Services—Students choose an ecosystem and list the existing and potential services (products and processes) that it provides to humans.
  • Alternative Indicators and Indexes of Progress—Students investigate, use, and compare alternative indicators of social and economic progress (e.g. Genuine Progress Indicator) with traditional economic indicators (e.g. Gross Domestic Product) to determine the health and well-being of their local community.
  • Globalization—Students describe the pros and cons of globalization and how a globalized world contributes to and detracts from sustainability.
  • True (or full) Cost Accounting—Students choose a product or service and list its hidden social and environmental costs.
  • Triple Bottom Line—Students conduct an analysis of a business operation in terms of environmental, economic, and social/cultural factors.
  • Micro Credit—Students investigate a micro-credit organization’s operations in a community and analyze how that operation contributes to the community’s long-term sustainability.

Social and Cultural Systems

  • Human Rights—Students examine the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, comparing this document to the United States Bill of Rights, answering the question, “Which rights from the U.N. Declaration are included in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and which are not explicitly addressed?”
  • Social Justice—Students research a non-profit group or non-governmental organization whose mission it is to forward social justice, economic opportunity, or civil rights for a particular group of oppressed, excluded, or underrepresented people, identifying the organization’s mission, key programs, and accomplishments.
  • Peace and Conflict—Students participate in a conflict resolution activity focused on a personal or school-related conflict. They then apply that knowledge and experience to a global conflict.
  • Multilateral Organizations—Students research and compare the goals and programs of three multilateral organizations, one economic (OPEC: Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), one environmental (Greenpeace: a global, public interest group dedicated to a world where people live peacefully in ways that allow the natural environment to sustain itself), and one social (UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that promotes education, social and natural science, culture, and communication as a laboratory of ideas and a standard-setter to forge universal agreements on emerging ethical issues).
  • International Summits, Conferences, Conventions, and Treaties—Students research and compare the goals, programs, and/or outcome documents or action plans that resulted from three United Nations international summit processes, global conferences, or conventions and treaties—along with the proposals from the accompanying civil society forums.
  • Global Health—Students examine strategies to curb malaria, comparing the economic and health efficacy of low cost preventative measures such as mosquito nets with more costly pharmaceutical research and treatment efforts.
  • Appropriate Technology—Students study a developing country to answer the question, what will achieve greater health, longevity, and sustainable development: basic technologies such as potable water systems and cell phones, or high technology such as personal computers and online services?
  • Governance—Students demonstrate their understanding of how authority is exercised in different countries under different forms of government. They understand that good governance in the U.S. includes a transparent and interactive system of government sector, business/private sector; and public/community sector. They actively participate in some aspect of local governance (e.g. attending and testifying at a city council meeting or registering voters).


Personal Action

  • Personal Responsibility—Students identify and commit to a personal sustainability action and they write about the results of that action. (e.g. using public transportation, reducing and recycling).
  • Accountability—After completing a thorough ecological footprint or product trail assessment of a product or service that they use, students identify alternate products or strategies for more responsible use. They develop a means for measuring the net progress of the product or strategy alternative.
  • Lifelong Learning and Action—Students write their own “story of learning” in which they describe how best they learn and move to action, where they learn and act both in and outside of school, and their strengths as a learner and doer.
  • Personal Change Skills and Strategies—Students identify what systems and strategies work best at self-motivating planning and action for effective personal change.

Collective Action

  • Local to Global Responsibility—Students describe the difference between a local and global problem, how the problems might be connected and how a potential solution to each could require different actions (at different levels – ranging from the local to the global). Students then take at least one action and analyze the results and lessons learned for future actions.
  • Community-Based and Societal Decision-Making—Students actively participate in local community-based and national and/or international decision-making focused on sustainable development.
  • Public Discourse and Policy—Students communicate their ideas in a public discussion or debate about a topic that furthers local and/or global sustainability, take action on that topic, and reflect upon the results.
  • Organizational and Societal Change Skills and Strategies—Students identify skills and strategies required to create effective group change for a given issue, take action on that issue and then reflect on lessons learned regarding change strategies.
Some Simple Sustainability Models

River Pollution model


Non-Renewable Resource model

1 This full list of standards is referenced from The US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development.


©2010 CC Modeling Systems