APPLICATION MATERIALS - To apply, you should forward to ESPP:

  • This application
  • A letter requesting admission to the Graduate Certificate in Environmental and Social System Modeling program and describing your professional interest in modeling.
  • A Curriculum Vitae.
  • Ask your graduate advisor to send a letter to ESPP indicating that you are in good standing and that the advisor supports your application to the modeling certificate program.

Modeling Environmental and Social Systems

Understanding and responding to complex global environmental changes is a major challenge for policymakers and academic researchers alike. Modeling is a useful tool to tackle these complex issues and study coupled human and natural systems at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Existing curricular structures emphasize disciplinary approaches resulting in a tendency to view analytical and computational modeling techniques as domain-specific, however. As a result, students are often unaware of the diversity of modeling tools available and how to utilize them to address environmental issues, which limits their ability to apply the most appropriate methodology to a given problem. To address these challenges, a core group of faculty in the Environment and Science Policy Program (ESPP) at Michigan State University (MSU) has established a new educational cluster around modeling techniques for addressing socio-environmental issues in complex systems.  This module of courses exposes students to cutting-edge techniques, including agent-based modeling, system dynamics modeling, participatory model-building, hierarchical linear modeling, and structural equation modeling. Our objective is to build a solid foundation in the theory of models and complex systems and provide hands-on experience with model design, development, and evaluation geared toward specific research topics across disciplines. The coursework culminates in an interdisciplinary team-taught capstone seminar on case-based group research that will address a selected practical policy problem using an ensemble of appropriate modeling tools.


Figure 1 Modeling Certification Track

Figure 1 shows the proposed certification track. The core courses are summarized briefly here.  Two courses are required, ESP 850 and ESP 890.  ESP 850 provides students with the theoretical background to understand the diversity of modeling problems arising from coupled human and natural systems. Through exposure to diverse modeling approaches, students learn to discern which modeling tool is most appropriate in a variety of contexts.  ESP 890 is a capstone course that involves a modeling project addressing a real-world environmental problem, supervised by one or more of the coordinating faculty.   Its aim is to teach students how to apply the theories and methodologies from previous modeling courses to practical policy problems.  

Between completion of ESP 850 and ESP 890 are three possible elective courses, CSUS 851, GEO 869, and SOC 883.  Students complete two of these modeling electives.   Relying heavily on systems-dynamics modeling, CSUS 851 introduces quantitative modeling approaches as tools for students interested in addressing real-world problems in complex environmental systems. Students learn to identify the characteristics and behavior of complex systems, articulate the steps involved in formulating a research question and building a model to address it, and construct quantitative, dynamic models with appropriate, data-derived relations between variables.   GEO 869 focuses on theoretical concepts related to simulating dynamic geographic phenomena that emerge on the intersection between human and natural systems. The course provides hands-on experience on agent-based modeling, with a special emphasis on modeling human decision making and its impact on natural environment.   SOC 883 covers hierarchical linear modeling and structural equation modeling, providing necessary skills for critically evaluate contemporary research and utilizing these techniques in independent research.  Students learn to effectively communicate advanced statistical concepts and understand and evaluate the application of these methods to a variety of social and environmental issues and behavior across multiple spatial scales.

Given multiple aspects of spatial and temporal variation in addressing coupled human and natural systems, we depict synergies across the courses in Figures 2 and 3.  Figure 2 shows how the three courses address complexity pertaining to spatial scale or the level of aggregation of the phenomena of interest.  Briefly, environment-society relations can be described across a number of units of analysis including individuals, groups, communities, regions, and nations and also those of international and global scope.  A suite of modeling techniques is also available to address pressing issues that include computational, numerical, and statistical approaches.  Synergies across the modeling courses are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 2 Level of Aggregation & Courses

Figure 3 Modeling Approach & Courses

For more information, contact Arika Ligmann-Zielinska at, Sandra Marquart-Pyatt or Laura Schmitt-Olabisi at

Below are two sample modeling simulations by Dr. Arika Ligmann-Zielinska: