Wrapping your Head around Environmental Problems by Leveraging Feedback Loop Thinking

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday 8:30am-11:30am

Session Chairs

Kim Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Logan Brenner, Barnard College
Alexandra Davatzes, Temple University
Tim Shipley, Temple University

Feedback loops (FL) are a powerful concept for Earth educators in the 21st century, because positive/reinforcing feedback loops underlie many environmental problems, while negative/balancing feedback loops underlie many plausible solutions. This workshop focuses on practices that have life-long value for students and build capacity to use FL thinking in solving environmental problems.


On Day 1, participants develop an expansive sense of the power of the feedback loop concept for explaining phenomena across both natural and human-made systems, and consider how the attributes of the human mind both enable and challenge feedback loop thinking. On Day 2, participants practice teachable strategies for detecting feedback loops in the media, in lived experience, and in the field, and experience how classroom use of causal loop diagrams can empower students to depict and explain the system of influences by which positive feedback loops cause growth or collapse and negative feedback loops cause stability or oscillation. On Day 3, participants practice ways to have students use feedback loop thinking and leverage point strategies to evaluate and propose interventions into problems that the students think are important, and plan for how to introduce or strengthen feedback loop thinking in their own courses.

Workshop Program »

Target Audience

This workshop targets instructors who are teaching about the Earth through a systems perspective, especially courses that include Earth-human coupled systems (such as wildfires, greenhouse gas emissions, urban heat islands) with a focus on seeking solutions to environmental problems.  Workshop content is appropriate for AP Environmental Science, intro undergrad, and some upper division undergrad courses. This workshop leverages the systems thinking capabilities of the human mind, and will not be teaching computational system dynamics modeling.


Participating faculty will leave with strategies and materials for supporting their students towards these learning goals:

  • Appreciate the breadth of FLs in the world: Look at the world with eyes open to the likely presence of positive and negative feedback loops as controllers or drivers of important processes. 
  • Detect FLs: Be sensitized to behavior patterns that signal the possible presence of a feedback loop in a system within which one is living, or in one's field area, or from a narrative description of a situation.  
  • Unravel and articulate causal structure: Having detected the presence of a feedback loop, be able to construct, explain and illustrate a logically consistent and empirically supported chain of influences that form a closed loop and that, upon repeated passages around the loop, tend to push the system farther away from its starting configuration (positive loop) or tend to pull the system back towards its starting configuration or towards an equilibrium value or goal state (negative loop).  
  • Situate the loop in a broader system: Be able to explain how the existence and activation of the feedback loop impacts the larger system within which the FL is embedded. 
  • Solve problems: Use FL thinking to formulate and evaluate potential solutions to problems that are underlain by a feedback loop.  


Each day's work begins with leader-provided activities, rubrics and assessments, and ends with participants adapting these materials to align with their own content focus and learner characteristics. The leaders provide a library of FL narratives and articles from the popular media appropriate for customizing these activities, or participants may bring materials from their own teaching practice.

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