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Unit 2: Systems Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Global Food Security

Compiled by Russanne Low, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, rusty_low@strategies.org, Rebecca Boger, Brooklyn College, rboger@brooklyn.cuny.edu, and Amy E. Potter, Armstrong State University, amy.potter@armstrong.edu


Summary

Armed with an overview of the complexity of issues associated with global food security, this unit begins by contextualizing food security as an example of a wicked problem. Wicked problems are problems that are unsolvable in the traditional sense, and have complex multiscalar causal factors that contribute to the creation of new issues as old ones are addressed. Both global food security and climate change are examples of wicked problems. This unit presents systems thinking as a way to identify complex problems and explore solutions. Using a flipped classroom model, students complete a self study tutorial that presents system concepts in the context of Earth system science. The slide stack includes two guided activities related to the carbon cycle and soils. A short reading, "Why Systems Thinking?" and a video clip is included in the tutorial. Authentic assessment of the homework activity is an Earth system diagram connected to one of the issues of global food security from Unit 1 that they will bring to class. After a short class discussion that introduces concepts of sustainability and ecosystem services as related to food production, students are broken into groups and are asked to create their own systems diagram of the global food system, using the organizational systems concepts they examined as homework and the introduction activities of Unit 1. After completing the diagrams, students examine a food system diagram example, and identify the components of the system using standardized systems language. Students can photograph their diagrams or make quick sketches so they have a working copy to include with their notes.

Learning Goals

After completing this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the major components of the Earth system.
  2. Identify the parts of a system: flux, reservoirs, residence time, cycles, and feedback loop.
  3. Apply systems thinking to wicked problems like global food security.
  4. Create a diagram that identifies connections between the Earth system and the global food system.

Context for Use

This unit is designed for a 90-minute face-to-face class and is appropriate for lower division undergraduates who are enrolled in social science, environmental science, or ecology courses. The lesson as designed requires a prior introduction to the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic aspects of global food security (see Unit 1 as an example). The ideal setting would be a classroom where students can break into groups of 4 and collaborate on building a conceptual diagram using paper and markers, with walls or tables where the diagrams can be displayed for a gallery walk.

It can be modified for large lecture classrooms by having pairs of students completing the same activity in their seats, and having students pass their diagrams along the row 2 or 3 times in lieu of a gallery walk. If desired the tutorial could be completed as group activity with the instructor if time is available. It can easily be adapted to 50 minute class periods, by ending the activity right before the gallery walk and completing the session the next class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Classroom Materials required:

  • large format flip chart paper and markers, enough for class divided in groups of 3-4
  • classroom with whiteboard or chalkboard, projector
  • sticky notes, one short stack per group

2.1 Pre-class Activity: Homework to be completed in preparation for this unit (60 minutes total)

For a flipped classroom format, assign students the reading assignment and the slide stack before class. The reading describes global food security as a "wicked problem," which has complex attributes and are notoriously difficult or impossible to solve. It explains to the student why they will be learning about systems thinking, and how this tool will help them to navigate the complexity of the global food security problem. These skills will be applied when they assess and identify parts of the problem that they may want to address when they conduct a case study analysis of an aspect of food security pertinent to their assigned region.

Reading: The Wicked Problem of Global Food Security (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 158kB Feb15 16).
(Estimated time to complete: 15 minutes).

Review: Unit 2 Pre-Class Homework Tutorial (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 19.2MB Nov8 16). Students can use the homework organizer supplied here to take notes and complete their homework assignment: Unit 2 Homework Organizer (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 780kB Aug28 16).
(Estimated time to complete: 45 minutes)

2.2 Introductory Class Discussion (20 minutes total)

Self-evaluation: As part of the homework tutorial, students are instructed to bring to class the system diagram they created that identifies parts of the Earth system and how they are connected to any one of the socioeconomic, geopolitical, and cultural factors that result in food insecurity. The provided rubric that shows expectations for the diagram can be projected as students enter the classroom so they can check their work and make changes as needed. Alternatively, the diagrams can be collected as homework. (Estimated time to complete: 5 minutes)

Discussion: A short slide stack to initiate classroom discussion is provided that reviews Earth system concepts covered in pre-class assignment. Unit 2 Discussion Slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 12.1MB Nov7 16). What were impressions of students last class? What were some of the big takeaways? Was anyone overwhelmed when they took a closer look at the scope of the problem of food security? Review the idea of "wicked problems" as discussed in the homework, and stress that food security is characterized by complexity and can only be approached through the use of a systems perspective. Review the parts of a system. Students were introduced to systems thinking in the homework tutorial, using the Earth system as an example. They also read a short piece by a computer scientist why he thinks Earth systems are a good way to learn about systems thinking. Draw a simple Earth system diagram on the board, and ask a few students to volunteer how they connected a part of the global food system to the Earth system diagram in their homework. When satisfied that the students have a working knowledge of these concepts, break the students into groups of 3-5. (Estimated time to complete: 15 minutes)

2.3 Activity: Creating a Systems Diagram of the Global Food System (65 minutes total)

Group work. Provide each group with a piece of poster paper and marker. Their goal is to identify the parts of the food system as it was presented last class. In the Earth system, there are 4 components identified (hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere). What are the components they want to use to organize their diagram? (It might be economic, social, political; or food safety, transportation, storage, or production, for instance). How will they integrate parts of the Earth system? Stress that complex wicked problems will benefit from exploring several different approaches to organizing information, so there is no right or wrong answer, but together the class will identify appropriate approaches for issues they plan on examining.
(Estimated time to complete: 20 minutes)

Gallery walk. With chart paper diagrams posted on the wall or on tables, invite the class to do a gallery walk and see the variety of ways that different teams conceptualized the global food system. After the gallery walk, the teams are welcome to make additions or changes on their own diagram. Groups are asked to evaluate their diagram, using the systems diagram rubric.
(Estimated time to complete: 15 minutes)

Self evaluation. Students are provided with an example of a generalized food system diagram, and are asked to identify the components, using system science vocabulary.
(Estimated time to complete: 20 minutes)

Written exit assignment. Ask each student to submit a short paragraph or diagram describing any one aspect of the global food system that interests them, and how it is linked to other parts of the global food system, including both the human and Earth system aspects. Have them use labels to identify at least one cycle or feedback, flux of matter or energy, as they link the components they have selected. Ask them to speculate on 1) what kind of data they would need to learn more about this part of the food system, and 2) what kinds of changes in human behavior, in what sectors of society, would be required to increase global food security.
(Estimated time to complete: 10 minutes)

Assessment

In this class students are building conceptual skills that build toward the completion of an authentic assessment in Unit 6.

The self evaluation at the beginning of classes will assist students in determining whether they can:

  • Identify the parts of a system: flux, reservoirs, residence time, cycles, and feedbacks
  • Describe the major components of the Earth system

Creation of the group global food system diagram serves as a formative assessment of the following learning goals:

  • Be able to articulate how systems thinking is critical to understanding wicked problems like global food security
  • Apply systems concepts in creating a diagram that identifies one or more links between the Earth system and the global food system for future analysis.

The short paragraph submission at the end of the class will enable the instructor to evaluate whether individual students are able to generalize from their guided understanding of the Earth system to creating system diagrams in another context.

To facilitate self-evaluation or assessment by the instructor, a product rubric is provided that includes guidance for creating diagrams and written work. This rubric can be distributed to students at the beginning of the module so that expectations are explicit for graded work. Universal Rubric for Assignments Units 1-5 (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 40kB Dec1 16).

References and Resources

Berhe, A. A., Arnold, C., Stacy, E., Lever, R., McCorkle, E. & Araya, S. N. (2014) Soil erosion controls on biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen. Nature Education Knowledge 5(8):2.

Brodt, S., Six, J., Feenstra, G., Ingels, C. & Campbell, D. (2011) Sustainable Agriculture. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):1.

Connolly, A., and Phillips-Connolly, K. (2012) Can agribusiness feed 3 billion new people...and save the planet? A glimpse into the future. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 15 (Special Issue B):139-152.

Dentoni, D., Hospes, O., and Ross, R. (2012) Managing Wicked Problems in Agribusiness: The Role of Multi-Stakeholder Engagements in Value Creation. Special Issue, International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 15(B): 1-165. This resource provides numerous papers addressing different aspects of food production and food security. http://www.wageningenportals.nl/sites/default/files/resource/ifama_managing_wicked_problems_in_agribusiness.pdf#page=7 'whole issue'

McLusky, S. and Sessa, R. (2015) Making It Count: Increasing the Impact of Climate Change and Food Security Programmes. FAO.

Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) Soil Carbon Storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35.

Rittel, H., and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4:155-169.

Waddock, S. (2012) More than coping: Thriving in a world of wicked problems. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 15 (Special Issue B): 127-131.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »