July 8 – August 16, 2019

Satisfies the IE-GenEd for Sustainable Food and Farming Majors in the UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Instructor: John M. Gerber; jgerber@umass.edu

Introduction: The naturalist and university professor Aldo Leopold’s suggestion that “only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.” If you’ve never heard this quote, it’s time to read A Sand County Almanac! Leopold was a well-published and respected scientist, who was also able to say things like….


Industrial agriculture violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term profitability at the expense of people and the land. Leopold was tough on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” Today, we might add that we have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicide-resistant weeds, floods and drought, and on and on….. because we fail to think like a mountain.

We must do better!

Systems thinking offers a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in food-related, farming and other environmental careers. Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional discipline-focused scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making. This course will introduce you to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating your learning from previous courses and experiences. In short, we will learn to think like a mountain.

For more information on Ag Systems, see: https://agsystemsthinking.net/

Probable Systems Thinking Topics for this Class

  1. Introduction to Systems Thinking
  2. Farming Systems
  3. The Five Disciplines
  4. Mind Mapping & Root Causes
  5. Mental Models & Paradigms
  6. Causal Loop Diagrams
  7. System Dynamics Modeling
  8. Personal Mastery & Shared Vision
  9. Team Learning & Collaboration
  10. Reframing and Persuasive Communication
  11. The Commodity Systems Challenge
  12. Learning Style Inventory and Team Success
  13. Applying Systems Thinking to Sustainable Agriculture
  14. Seeing Nature

WARNING: We will make adjustments to the syllabus as we go along. Topics will be selected from the “systems thinking toolbox” below and other resources based on your interest throughout the semester. That is we will “build the road while walking.” If this won’t work for you, please drop the class now.

Systems Thinking Toolbox

General Education Requirement: This class satisfies the Integrated Experience (IE) GenED requirement for students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major.

Grading: Grading will be based on successful completion of homework assignments and projects, active participation in discussions, and attendance. You cannot learn this stuff if you don’t show up and practice! Regular participation is necessary!

Readings – Selections from:

  1. Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life. Anchor Press.
  2. Krafel, P. 1999. Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Vermont.
  3. Meadows, D.H. 2008. Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Press
  4. Senge, P. et al. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. Doubleday Publishing Group.
  1. Wilson, K. and G.E.B Morren Jr. 1990. Systems Approaches for Improvement in Agriculture and Resource Management
  2. And more…..

Academic Honesty

No form of cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, or facilitating of dishonesty will be condoned in the University community. Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to:

  • Cheating – intentional use or attempted use of trickery, artifice, deception, breach of confidence, fraud and/or misrepresentation of one’s academic work
  • Fabrication – intentional and unauthorized falsification and/or invention of any information or citation in any academic exercise
  • Plagiarism – knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own work in any academic exercise. This includes submitting without citation, in whole or in part, prewritten term papers of another or the research of another, including but not limited to commercial vendors who sell or distribute such materials
  • Facilitating dishonesty – knowingly helping or attempting to help another commit an act of academic dishonesty, including substituting for another in an examination, or allowing others to represent as their own one’s papers, reports, or academic works

Sanctions may be imposed on any student who has committed an act of academic dishonesty. Any person who has reason to believe that a student has committed academic dishonesty should bring such information to the attention of the course instructor as soon as possible. Formal definitions of academic dishonesty, examples of various forms of dishonesty, and the procedures which faculty must follow to penalize dishonesty are contained in the Academic Honesty Policy.


This class fulfills requirements for all three of the online programs offered by the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Sustainable Food and Farming: