Teach the Earth > Complex Systems > Courses > Systems Modeling and Assessment for Policy

Systems Modeling and Assessment for Policy

Noelle Selin,
Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


This course explores how scientific information can be used to inform policy decision‐making processes through the use of quantitative modeling techniques. Incorporates both hands‐on analysis and practice using models as well as evaluation of the use and effectiveness of models in decision‐making. Assesses the full spectrum of model complexity from simple box model calculations to complex, global systems models. Issues addressed include scientific assessment processes; integrated assessment modeling; model frameworks; and scenarios. Examples focus on models and information used for earth system governance, with selected examples from other areas of application.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is a course for Master's and Doctoral students who are generally using modeling techniques in their research. It is designed to get them to reflect on decision-relevant modeling and what that means.

Course Content:

The course is divided into four sections. The first section introduces the context of the use of scientific assessment and models in policy and decision‐making, and presents the various types of models and assessments used in decision‐making contexts. The second section gives an overview of modeling and analytical tools useful in constructing and evaluating models, including assessment frameworks. These include ways to evaluate credibility, salience and legitimacy and the effectiveness of information. Frameworks analyzed include vulnerability, scenario‐based approaches and risk assessment. The third section applies the modeling and analytical tools learned in the previous section to discussion of case studies of models in policy, including cases on acid rain, fisheries, population, climate change, and chemicals.

Course Goals:

This course is designed to provide students with the critical tools necessary to evaluate the use of models and scientific assessments in decision‐making and policy. Students will gain understanding and awareness of how models work, practice using models to conduct policy‐relevant analyses, and evaluate the effectiveness of models and scientific assessments in decision‐making contexts. This is thus an appropriate course both for students who are planning to develop or build models, as well as those who are potential users of model analyses or output. While many of the examples will be drawn from modeling of earth and environmental systems, the techniques and frameworks applied can be used across multiple issue domains. Guest lecturers throughout the semester will introduce examples from other areas of application. Students are welcome to choose term projects from their own areas of interest.

Course Features:

The course incorporates hands-on activities (and problem sets) where students are asked to use and evaluate decision-relevant models. As a final project, students will evaluate decision-relevant features in models they are familiar with from their own research.

Course Philosophy:

It gives interdisciplinary perspective and context for students who are doing model-related work.


Assessment is based on performance in problem sets and the term project.


References and Notes: