OEAS 658: Participatory and Agent-Based Modeling, Simulations, and Visualization.

Course description

Many societal challenges are “wicked problems,” i.e., social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve. The class will introduce the students to the theory of wicked problems, engage them in transdisciplinary approaches to address such problems using collaborative strategies such as participatory modeling combined with conceptual and agent-based models. Scenario-based simulations and visualizations will be used to explore possible futures and to create foresight related to wicked problems.

Learning Goals

Students will acquire the skills to participate in transdisciplinary projects addressing wicked problems in society and to contribute to making improvements. They will:

  • Gain an appreciation of the characteristics of wicked and super-wicked problems and understand transdisciplinary approaches to these problems;
  • Be able to participate in, and contribute to participatory modeling projects addressing wicked problems;
  • Have the understanding and technical skills to develop conceptual models capturing the decision space for specific wicked problems;
  • Have tools to translate the conceptual models into stock-and-flow models and develop agent-based models;
  • Understand the importance of scenario-based model simulations for exploring the space of possible futures and developing foresight;
  • Have the skills to visualize the model outputs to inform the deliberations in the participatory modeling projects.


The course is a mandatory class for the graduate Certificate in Conservation Leadership and it is open for all students. A prerequisite is OEAS/BIOL 566 or consent of the instructors (for students who are not pursuing the graduate certificate.

There are no specific prerequisite courses, but you are expected to have a basic understanding of programming and are able to learn using software like NetLogo and VIM easily. Regular class attendance is required.

Reading assignment will be made available on a weekly basis on the Class Schedule available in the workspace.

Course Contents

Wicked problems are social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because they do not have a stopping rule, there is no agreement on the problem definition, knowledge is incomplete or contradictory, the number of social agent involved is large, improvements are associated with large economic burden, and there are many links to related problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Super wicked problems have four additional characteristics: (1) time is running out; (2) there is no central authority to address the problem; (3) those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; (4) policies discount the future irrationally (Lewin et al., 2012). Examples of wicked and super wicked problems considered in the included cyber-security, plastic pollution, mitigation of, and adaptation to climate change, adaptation to sea level rise, and conservation under climate change and sea level rise. The students will form groups of six to ten members and work on one specific problem of their selection collaboratively throughout the course. Each problem will be linked to societal agents actually engaged in addressing the problem.

Each group will start by initiating a participatory modeling (PM) effort, in which students will assume roles of societal agents and work with participating external agents. The first step in the PM effort will lead to an agreement on a goal statement, followed by the development of a conceptual model that represents the relevant system with societal agents, environment, and decision space. Next, the students will explore the translation of the conceptual model into a stock-and-flow model that provides a basis for an agent-based model. The agent-based model will allow the students to carry out scenario-based simulations to explore possible futures of the system considered, and to develop foresight. The results of these simulations will be visualized for the participants in the PM effort so that they can develop foresight and make decisions about actions informed by an understanding of the range of possible futures. Each group will document their PM effort, which will give guidance to the external agents engaged with the group. The final results will be presented to the external stakeholders at the end of the course.

Work Skills and Collaboration

You must be able to access the course Web page at http://www.mari-odu.org/academics/2019f_modeling on a daily basis. Assignment details, course materials, schedule changes, and other important information will be posted at the course Web page regularly. Please visit the course website for detailed weekly course information.

Points received for assignments will be available in the course Workspace. Collaboration is expressly required. Students will work in groups of up to six students to work on a specific wicked problem in sustainability, conservation, cybersecurity, economy, or new technologies. Collaboration must follow these guidelines:

  • You must actively participate in the collaborative project;
  • You must write your own individual report on any team project work;
  • All team members’ names must be included in any written project work;
  • You must understand the material and be able to answer questions on it.

Reading Material

Access to a digital text will be supplied to students at no cost. All necessary information for the course, including the reading list and homework assignments are posted in the web workspace. Students must bring a laptop, mobile phone, tablet, or other device for internet access to every class. You are responsible for reading and complying with all information posted.


The course combines lectures with exercises and project work. There are weekly reading assignments and written homework. The student project assignment will consist of a research paper and a presentation at the end of the class. At the end of each class, each student will submit a 2/2 form stating briefly two things learned in the class and two things not understood in the class. This form is documentation of having participated in the class.

You will be graded on a standard scale:
100.0-93.0% = A; 92.9-90.0% = A-
89.9-87.0% = B+; 86.9-83.0% = B; 82.9-80.0% = B-
79.9-77.0% = C+; 76.9-73.0% = C; 72.9-70.0% = C-
69.9-67.0% = D+; 66.9-63.0% = D; 62.9-60.0% = D-
0-59.9% = F.

The overall grade for the class will be composed of individual grades using:
Class participation (based on 2+2 forms) 5%
Participatory modeling report: 15%
Conceptual model, including documentation: 10%
Stock and Flow and/or Agent-based model code and documentation: 20%
Simulations: 15%
Visualization: 15%
Case Study Report: 10%
Presentation: 10%.

University regulations prohibit communicating test results via email or by phone. If you wish to talk about your grade, please make an appointment. All scores will be available as soon as possible after they are graded.

Grade forgiveness policy:

Missed question sets or other submissions may only be made up for valid reasons such as: participation in ODU sports team events (a coach's note is needed), evidence of illness (doctor's or Student Health Services' note needed), bereavement of an immediate family member (death notice needed), or documented court appearance (copy of notice to appear needed). Advance notice in writing must be given whenever possible.

Late assignments or reports will be graded on a reduced point scale as follows:
up to 24 hrs late = 90%
up to 48 hrs late = 80%

A further 10% per day reduction in possible points earned will be applied, up to a maximum total of seven days late, after which the assignment will not be accepted without evidence that the student was sick or there was a family emergency.