Systems Thinking Student’s Syllabus

UW100 – Systems Thinking: A Systems View of Life


Welcome to UW-Madison and welcome to Systems 100! In this class, we will answer questions such as: What is a system and how do they work? What do systems have to do with me and why do they matter? How can I be a systems thinker? By walking through this course together, we hope to ease you into your time at UW-Madison while exposing you to new patterns of thought that will impact your future classes, jobs, goals, and beyond!

Each week we will delve into new topics related to systems and give you a chance to hear from current professionals who use systems thinking in their work. You will discuss with your classmates, interact with your teachers, and reflect on personal experiences as the weeks progress. We hope you will think of this class as a small community within a large campus.


Course Objectives/Learning Goals

In this course, you will learn to:

  1. Be able to name the basic characteristics of a system and be able to provide examples of each.
  2. Be able to identify a system and name the different characteristics such as elements, feedback loops, stocks and flows, thresholds and tipping points, hierarchies, self-organization, and limiting factors.
  3. Be able to ask questions to determine what is there, and what isn’t there.
  4. Be able to explain concepts of systems thinking, including identifying the parts of a system, feedback loops in a system, and being able to describe them in the final project.
  5. Be able to explain sustainability in terms of design and systems.
  6. Be able to identify wicked problems, how they relate to the human condition, and why they are difficult if not impossible to solve.

Course Outline

The outline of the course material will be as follows:

Module 1: Understanding Systems

Introduction to Systems and Terminology

  • Submodule 1a: Systems Today: History of Thought
  • Submodule 1b: System Basics
  • Submodule 1c: Connections in Systems

Module 2: Systems Behavior and Systems Modeling

  • Submodule 2a: System Management
  • Submodule 2b: Thresholds, Tipping Points
  • Submodule 2c: Resilience and Risk

Module 3: Applications of Systems Thinking: Directed Change

  • Submodule 3a: Institutions and Systems
  • Submodule 3b: Identity
  • Submodule 3c: Sustainable Systems
  • Submodule 3d: Welcome to the Anthropocene
  • Submodule 3e: Wicked Problems


The grading system for this class is a little different than others that you will have.  Instead of starting with zero points and working your way up, you will start with 100% of your points (1000 points) and try to keep them throughout the semester.  If you lose less than 90 points you will receive an A for the course.  You may lose points for various reasons including: poor attendance/participation, not completing the required amount of reading responses or turning them in late, and not putting forth proper effort on the projects, among other detractors.  The grading scale is described below.

Grade Scale

Letter Grade Point Range Grade Point Value
A 1000-910 4.0
AB 909-890 3.5
B 889-810 3.0
BC 809-790 2.5
C 789-700 2.0
D 699-600 1.0
F 599-0 0


Assignment  Points Per Assignment Total Points of Assignment Percentage of Total Grade
Attendance and Participation 100 10%
Weekly Reading Responses 20 200 20%
Midterm Project 250 25%
Assignment One 50 5%
Assignment Two 50 5%
Assignment Three 50 5%
Final 300 30%


Attendance is required and you will be deducted 25 points for every unexcused absence. For a course like this, it is crucial to attend every class to be able to fully grasp the material. If you are to miss a class, please email the TA or Professor before the start of class time with a reason for missing class.


Participation will be completely based on how much effort you put forth in lecture and discussion. During both lecture and discussion, you may be asked to answer a couple of questions or lead a discussion about a specific topic, so being engaged in class is very important. If you show excellent engagement in lecture and discussion, you will receive an A for this portion. The grade for this will be determined by the TA.


We believe that it is very important to be punctual. You will not lose any points if you are late to class, but during lecture and discussion you may be chosen to answer questions or start a discussion and if you are not present you may lose participation points.


Reading Responses

Each week you will be assigned readings from the textbook, supplementary readings, or alternative activity (podcast, video, etc.) depending on the lecture. Students are given a prompt related to the readings and are expected to write a reading response from 250-500 words. Reading responses are due at midnight the night before discussion. Posts will be set up through canvas and participants will be unable to see other student’s responses until they post their own response. Students are expected to read their classmates responses and come prepared to discuss their thoughts during discussion. There will be 12 reading responses offered throughout the semester, students are required to choose 10 responses to complete, and only 10 will be graded. Posts are graded on completion and late reading responses will not be accepted.


For the midterm, students are expected to work in a group of 2-3 people to complete a creative project, animating what students have learned in the course so far to their discussion section. The midterm project will be mentioned in the first week of class so students can highlight and pull from specific readings throughout the semester. The midterm will be presented in discussions during the halfway point of the semester. Presentations are expected to be 6-8 minutes, students are able to animate their presentation in any way they see fit, however, students should check in with their TA and run ideas past them. Students will drop one letter grade each day their midterm is late.

Possible projects include: infographic, video, powerpoint with activity, creating a game/game show, making a display board, performing a skit, song, poem or dance, designing a pamphlet or brochure, holding a debate/mock trial, or writing a children’s book!


The final will consist of a final written paper. Students will work with one other student to create a 5-7 page paper and animate their paper by creating a poster presentation that will be shared during the final exam section. In terms of the final presentation– half of the class will present for the first half of the exam time, groups will rotate around the class having a chance to explore their classmate’s topics and then halfway through students will switch places. Students will be graded on their paper, and a small percentage will go towards their attendance and poster during the presentation period.

There are three assignments students will be graded on that lead up to the final paper. Note: late assignments will not be accepted by the TA.

Assignment 1: Once students choose their partners, students will set up an appointment with their TA during discussion section to generate ideas for their final paper topic.

Assignment 2: One week after assignment 1 is completed, students are expected to turn in a topic proposal and outline (one per group) to their TA.

Assignment 3: A rough draft will be due one week before the final exam date.

Course Resources

The book “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H Meadows will be required reading as it serves as a key primer to the terminology and mechanics of Systems Thinking. In addition, individual modules will include content from a variety of sources: scholarly articles, newspaper articles, podcasts, TED talks, other videos, and guest lecturers. Each submodule will contain a differing collection of resources to better complement the material being taught.

A physical copy of “Thinking in Systems” may be purchased here (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., while a free PDF may be found here (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

Course Expectations

1. Attend all classes. If class is missed, it is the student’s responsibility to make up missed work from other students, the TA, or the professor.

2. Arrive to lecture and discussion on time. Please account for any weather challenges that may prevent you from being punctual.

3. Submit weekly reading responses and assignments on time. Discussion relies heavily on the submitted reading responses and late responses will not be accepted.

4. Put forth a genuine effort to best understand the material and spend enough time on assignments and group-work.

5. Seek help when appropriate. Your professor and TA’s have weekly office hours and can be contacted via email. University Health Services also provides many additional resources.

Classroom Conduct

1. Be respectful of all ideas, contributions, and comments from students and instructors.

2. No plagiarism allowed. Students who plagiarize are subject to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s plagiarism policy. If you would like more information on academic integrity, it can be found here.

3. Use of laptops and other electronics must be used for academic note-taking purposes only. Other uses of these devices are prohibited.

4. Do not demonstrate any behaviors that may disrupt the academic environment. The University has a responsibility to address student nonacademic misconduct. For more information, click here (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

 Your Instructor


Dr. Molly Jahn

Professor, Department of Agronomy

Office: Room  456 USDA Forest Products Laboratory
Phone: 608-663-5173 (office + voicemail)
Office Hours: After class and other times as arranged.
Home Page:  Molly’s web site