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Online study


Systems Thinking for Sustainability Challenges


Sustainability challenges are often presented in simplified cause and effect terms, however in truth this is rarely the reality. This short course will allow you to uncover new perspectives on how systems thinking can be applied to complex sustainability issues, and understand how these theories can be applied to bring about real-world positive change.

This course is suited to:

The Systems Thinking for Sustainability Challenges course has been designed to empower people to take meaningful, practical and impactful action on the international environmental crisis.

Through the course, you will develop key skills in systems thinking, communication, project management, research and presenting, making the programme invaluable to sustainability professionals as well as those looking to pursue a career into this field.

What will I learn?

This short course will provide you with a solid foundation in systems thinking in the context of global sustainability, and an understanding of how this can be applied to specific challenges.

While the course covers the contested history of sustainability and how the concept has evolved, it also goes far beyond this, encouraging you to explore contemporary debates within the climate and ecological crisis. You will examine real-world sustainability issues using online visualisation tools, allowing you to look at complex datasets in innovative ways. You will also have frequent opportunities to see how the concepts and theories you study can be applied; for instance, worked examples and exercises are incorporated into your learning to give you the opportunity to consider “how to think in systems” in response to specific challenges.

As part of the course’s tasks, you will be able to practice and refine your change-making communication and solution-finding research skills - skills which are vital to bringing about the large-scale positive change needed to address the global environmental crisis.

Learning outcomes

  • Describe the key concepts of systems dynamics, feedback loops, and complex adaptive systems

  • Analyse the historical development of sustainability theory and policy

  • Interpret specific sustainability challenges in the light of sustainability and systems theory

  • Link local/regional sustainability challenges to global-scale processes

  • Apply systems theory concepts in relation to environmental sustainability

  • Synthesise and critically evaluate research and findings from an interdisciplinary range of sources and methodologies

  • Formulate conceptual models of real-world complex systems across a range of domains

  • Effectively communicate complex issues in a way comprehensible to a general audience

  • Undertake independent, self-directed study and research

How is the module assessed?

Assessments % Length/Duration
Research report 60 2500 words
Recorded presentation 20 5 minutes
Short film 20 5 minutes

For this course, you should expect to engage in structured learning activities for 10-15 hours per week on average, plus additional time spent on self-directed learning (such as further reading or preparing for assessments).

The course can be completed in a maximum of 17 weeks. Typically, there are 10 weeks of taught content, and the final submission is in week 11. The rest of the time is made up for marking and feedback.

Module staff and contributors

Dr James Dyke

Dr James Dyke
Associate Professor in Earth System Science

Dr Chris Boulton

Dr Chris Boulton
Research Fellow and Lecturer

Professor Tim Lenton

Professor Tim Lenton
Chair in Climate Change and Earth System Science

Dr David Armstrong McKay

Dr David Armstrong McKay
Research Impact Fellow

Entry Requirements

While there are no specific academic entry requirements, this course is delivered at Masters level so you’d usually have at least 2:2 undergraduate degree (or equivalent) OR relevant work experience related to the area of study.

Should you not have the relevant background described the University of Exeter cannot be held responsible for any failure to attain an award from this course.

English language requirements

International students need to show they have the required level of English language to study this course.

The required test scores for this course fall under Profile B2.

 May 2024



Apply now

  •  17 weeks (including teaching, assessment and feedback time)
  •  10-15 hours per week on average
  •  30 Masters level credits