Initial Publication Date: October 15, 2021

Instructor Module Overview

Download the module overview and instructor guide as a PDF:

This is a module designed by business and science faculty at Bentley University, Northern Illinois University, and Wittenberg University, and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE-1914906). It introduces students to the intractable nature of the wicked problems of sustainability, framed by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (opens in a new tab). At the same time, students learn the transdisciplinary nature of wicked problems – and that perspectives from different academic and operational disciplines are required to describe the problem, much less address it.


The module is designed to cover approximately 1-2 weeks of class time, depending on how the module is implemented with respect to in-class and outside-of-class work. Course-specific exercises are also available to highlight disciplinary concepts, using the lens of the wicked problem, if desired.


While several parts were designed with face-to-face interactions in mind, the module can be adapted for remote learning, with various asynchronous and synchronous options.

Goals and Outcomes

Students are introduced to the multi-faceted nature of wicked problems by exploring the example of downstream chemical pollution in the Mississippi River Watershed. Resources are provided so that instructors may choose one of three pollutants to illustrate the wicked problem of downstream pollution: nitrogen, antibiotics, or mercury. The student learning outcomes, however, are much broader and transferable to other sustainability challenges. After completing the module, students will be able to:

  1. Locate and describe interactions between human and natural systems.
  2. Diagram key components of a complex system focused on water quality and identify different stakeholder perspectives or interests associated with water use.
  3. Explain how differing power dynamics among stakeholders creates conflict and the potential for social/environmental injustice.

Module Components

The module and instructor materials center on three activities toward these outcomes: (1) development of a stakeholder map, (2) a mock Town Meeting role-playing exercise, and (3) creating a revised stakeholder map. The materials also include resources for instructors to introduce students to stakeholder mapping, wicked problems, upstream/downstream problems, the Mississippi River Watershed, the three specific pollutants, and other aspects of surface water pollution.


Students are evaluated by their formative work on the stakeholder map (individual and then as a class), presentation of their stakeholder position in the Town Meeting, as well as a self-reflection and self-evaluation based on the Town Meeting exercise.

Instructor Introduction: Wicked Problems and Water Pollution in the Mississippi River Valley

The student guide provides a brief introduction to wicked problems, the basic water cycle, and downstream chemical pollution in the Mississippi River Valley. The instructor may want to elaborate and add content on:

  • The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Definition and examples of wicked problems
  • Systems Thinking (e.g. Video on Systems thinking (opens in a new tab))
  • The water cycle and examples of other upstream/downstream water problems

The "Overview" slide deck below provides background information that introduces the module, including an optional introductory "in-class" exercise, as well as material for each of the 3 specific exercises. The "Antibiotics," "Mercury," and "Nitrogen" slides provide information specific to these three pollutants and are designed to be used in conjunction with the "Overview" slides.

Additional Instructor Resources

General news

Stakeholder mapping