Award Date

Spring 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Science


Environmental Science

Advisor 1

Krystyna A. Stave, Committee Chair

First Committee Member

David M. Hassenzahl

Second Committee Member

Kent Crippen

Graduate Faculty Representative

Christopher Stream

Number of Pages



While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence within the systems dynamics community supporting the use of systems simulations in the classroom to improve student understanding, there is little published, controlled, experimental research. This paper describes the results of a paired experiment testing the effect of using system dynamics simulations to increase systems understanding in an introductory environmental science course. We believed that the students using the systems simulations would demonstrate a greater systemic understanding of environmental issues than those who did not.

We conducted an experiment during the fall semester of 2009, with 304 students enrolled in four sections of Introduction to Environmental Science. Students in the experimental group used systems simulations to complete two homework assignments: one on population dynamics and one on carbon accumulation in the atmosphere. Students in the control group completed the same assignments, using parallel text descriptions, instead of simulations. We measured general and systemic understanding of environmental issues at the beginning of the course, at the end of the course, and at multiple points throughout the course. Regression analyses results show that there was a significant positive relationship between performance on assessment questions immediately following the first intervention and simulation use. Experimental group students were better able to recognize interconnections, identify stocks and flows and understand how accumulation occurs within the systems they studied. The study led to some questions about the effectiveness of using multiple-choice questions and behavior over time graphs to assess systemic understanding. The study also demonstrated the effectiveness of using methods, besides simulation, in the classroom to increase systemic understanding.


Assessment; Dynamics; Environment; Higher education; Systems Simulations; Teaching methods


Curriculum and Instruction | Environmental Sciences | Higher Education and Teaching | Science and Mathematics Education | Sustainability

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




IN COPYRIGHT. For more information about this rights statement, please visit