Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Non-engineering Majors Invited to Present at System Dynamics Conference

By Anna Fiorentino
August 2015 • CoolStuff

The projects of three Dartmouth non-engineering majors were accepted for presentation at the International System Dynamics Conference in July. In poster sessions, the students presented their projects from ENGS 18: System Dynamics in Policy Design and Analysis—a course that three years ago was opened up to the greater Dartmouth community in an effort to spread engineering concepts to non-majors. Patrick Campbell ’14, Cecelia Shao ’15, and Sara Peterson ’14 were the only undergraduates to take the stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The annual conference brought together policy makers, educators, and others from around the world, including Dartmouth alumni, to share research relevant to “Reinventing Life on a Shrinking Earth.”

Dartmouth undergrads at System Dynamics conference
(l to r) Patrick Campbell ’14, Sara Peterson ’14, Cecelia Shao ’15, and Senior Lecturer Steven Peterson.

ENGS 18 was Sara Peterson's first engineering class and teaching it was her father, Senior Lecturer Steve Peterson Th’83.

“I was a bit intimidated about taking a class in the engineering department and I think that it speaks to the way Thayer is often viewed by non-engineering students. The course helped me develop the skills to better dissect systems instead of just looking at the outcomes,” says Sara Peterson, a geography major prepping for a career in international development. “I can now devise more effective ways to solve issues in international development as well as in my daily life.”

For decades, ENGS 18 was listed as an elective for engineering majors until the fall of 2012 when the course was made accessible to non-majors. Shortly after, President Phil Hanlon announced a plan for other majors to become more integrated with engineering sciences courses. Steve Peterson has since been moving away from lectures to screen casts, introducing hands-on case studies, and assigning a term project, which the students took to the conference at Peterson’s recommendation.

The course, which typically attracts a mix of humanities majors as well as those studying biological sciences and economics, introduces system dynamics as an approach to policy design and analysis based upon feedback principles and computer simulation. It gives them the tools to understand the underlying causes of problem behavior in social, economic, political, environmental, technological, and biological systems.

“If you look out in the world, systems are all around you, and if you look at big societal issues, they tend to be systems issues that transcend functional and physical boundaries,” says Steve Peterson, who’s been teaching the course since its inception. “Some people who are the best and brightest may not have access to the quantitative tools aimed at giving them language to figure out how dynamic systems and processes work.”

For example, through her model Sara Peterson gained an understanding of the logical mechanisms of transmission of Ebola.

“Each Ebola patient is thought to infect two people over the entire duration of their illness, so I explored how to break that down into the infections per contact per day,” she says.

Campbell, a biology major whose presentation focused on the production of agriculture and biofuels in Ethiopia, further enriched his ENGS 18 project in ENGS 175: Energy Systems, while Shao, a geography major, presented her project on the supply chain of ISIS terrorists in France.

“Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris [in January], I was interested in modeling terrorism for my final project,” says Shao, who attempted to use a supply-chain approach to track individuals as they move through the process of radicalization. “Terrorism is a perfect candidate for systems modeling since it's an incredibly complex problem that continues to evade a solution.”

Tags: complex systems, international, projects, public policy, students

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