The Sustainability thread of the Ross Spiral Curriculum reveals the increasing complexity of humans and their environment by engaging students in an exploration of cultural ecology, the study of cultural history in the context of natural systems. As case studies from the Ross Curriculum demonstrate, systems thinking enables students to understand the complexity of sustainability issues, both historical and contemporary, from a global perspective. Participants in this course identify a sustainability concern in the local community and apply systems thinking as well as the Ross Framework for Action to design an Integrated Project that engages students in learning about the issue and responding through informed action.

Module: Systems Thinking and the Sustainability Interactive

Enduring Understandings

  • Understanding the inherent complexity and interconnectedness of systems is integral to developing sustainable practices.
  • By engaging in responsible, informed, meaningful, and authentic action, students can make a difference in their local communities and feel connected to the larger global movement to save the planet.


The systems thinking approach uses metaphors to explain complex dynamical systems theory in order to help us better understand the increasingly interrelated world around us. By examining some of the ideas and techniques that mathematicians apply to the study of complex systems, “the horizon of complexity, beyond which we can’t understand, is pushed back.” (Ralph Abraham, Mission of System Dynamics Class & Evolution of Ross Curriculum) Systems thinking prepares students to understand and participate in the complex world of the future and to act more sustainably for the betterment of the planet.

Learn how the systems thinking approach is integral to the Ross curriculum.

WATCH: Systems Thinking



Human manipulation of the natural systems of the environment has introduced numerous imbalances and fragilities into those systems. The Sustainability thread of the Ross Spiral Curriculum examines the survival of humans and the health of the planet through an exploration of the intersections between the natural world and human culture, their influences upon each other, and the impact of humans on the environment through time. Given the ecological, economic, political, and cultural dimensions of sustainability, and the multitude of interconnections among them, systems thinking is critical to understanding and acting on these issues.

Students in grade 1 at Ross School learn about patterns and cycles in the natural world. They use systems thinking to understand the butterfly life cycle and its role within the ecosystem.

Watch the video below to see how this Learning Experience introduces students to systems thinking.

WATCH: Patterns and Cycles: Monarch Butterflies


As students move through the Ross Spiral Curriculum, they continue to use systems thinking to gain broader and deeper understandings of sustainability, addressing not only the complexities inherent in biological systems but also the added complexities brought about by the interactions between humans and their environment.

READ: Sustainability Thread in the Spiral Curriculum



Project Circles (recommended for use with grades 9–12) enables students to apply systems thinking to identify and address an issue of sustainability in their local community. This interactive tool allows students to assess the sustainability of a given area, visualize their findings, develop new and innovative approaches to sustainability, and share their work with others around the world. Whether working in large groups or on a solo project, whether assessing their school campus or an entire city, students gain a complex understanding of sustainability and a platform for effecting change.

EXPLORE: Project Circles
Project Circles


Project Circles engages students in examining four domains of sustainability. Within each of those domains, they explore seven subdomains and essential questions.

DOWNLOAD: Sustainability Interactive Assessment Questions

Students are provided with topics and questions to consider as they research each domain of sustainability in their locality. Using their research findings, students assess the levels of sustainability across each subdomain, rating them from “low/critical” to “high/excellent.” They synthesize their research and post their documentation on the interactive website, providing a rationale for each rating, which they represent using interactive sliders on the color-coded assessment circle profile.


After assessing the location’s sustainability across all four domains, students begin to develop their plans for taking action to effect change. Informed by the data they have collected and the assessments they have made, students identify an area they want to improve. They apply systems thinking to identify a network around the issue by linking their identified area for improvement to at least two other subdomains in different domains and providing a rationale for each link.

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As students engage in local action to address the selected sustainability issue, they document their process and outcomes and share those via the Action Hub.



  1. Decide how you will implement Project Circles in your classroom or school.
    • What location will students be examining? The school or neighborhood community? The entire city or other region?

    • Will students focus on each of the four domains in a different course? For example, at Ross School, students focus on ecology in Science, economics in Mathematics, politics in Cultural History, and culture in World Languages and Literature.

    • Will each student research all seven subdomains within a given domain? Or will each student perhaps focus on one of the subdomains, with different students in the class researching each of the seven different subdomains? Will they conduct this research individually, or collaborate in teams? How will they synthesize their findings before adding documentation to the interactive and rating the sustainability of the subdomain?

    • When will students be engaging with the Ross Sustainability Interactive? Can you align the subdomains with existing units in your curriculum, so that they are working with various subdomains across the year? Or will you perhaps introduce the Sustainability Interactive to students as a tool for synthesis to be used later in the school year?

  2. Provide structures and strategies to support students in researching the subdomain questions.
    • What support do students need with Internet search skills? Where can they find reliable, current information about their location? How can they verify the information they find by comparing multiple sources?

    • How can students identify local (and global) experts who have knowledge about the subdomain? Can you bring experts into the classroom, either in person or via technology as guest speakers?

    • What support do students need in terms of interviewing local (and global) community members? What interviewing skills do students need to improve before engaging with these experts?

    • What other methods would be helpful in researching the ecological, cultural, political, and economic sustainability in your location? What other research, investigation, fieldwork, and/or data collection processes are relevant and useful in answering the subdomain question(s) students are researching?

  3. Guide students to synthesize their research, assess the level of sustainability for the given subdomain, and select an appropriate rating. Support students in providing documentation, including text and media sources, as a rationale for their assessment to be published on the website.

  4. Support students in identifying the connections among various subdomains and in selecting an area they wish to improve. Guide students to determine related issues as they identify the network of interconnections associated with their selected area for improvement.

  5. Support students in planning, implementing, and documenting their action project to share with the world via the Action Hub.

*For more on planning and implementing a sustainability action project, see the Framework for Action module.

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