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Tools of the Trade: Sustainability Research




Admission Requirements

This course is required for all students that wish to major in Sustainability. Students should have successfully completed the Global Challenges 4: Sustainability-Earth course, the Numeracy/Exploring Mathematics course, and have basic knowledge of chemistry, biology, and physics.


Data on the past and present, and predictions about the future and decisions are key ingredients for policy officials, managers, and scientists. Particularly the focus point of sustainability is a data and model intensive field, for which sufficient skills in data management, computational thinking and visualisation are critical.

In this course, students will acquire these skills and gain sufficient fluency to adequately analyse and evaluate some of the existing models and their applied results. Models and tools discussed include Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), Material Flow Analysis (MFA).

The course consists of six major blocks of one week in which the different topics will be discussed and put to practice. Each block will start with a lecture and an introduction to an assignment.

The assignments are of a highly practical nature; please bring your laptop to each session.
Depending on the number of students and their background, we may change the schedule of topics a bit.

Course Objectives

After completion of the course students will be able to:

  • Collect and manipulate data from various sources

  • Understand issues related to data and data quality

  • Perform basic data management and data mining

  • Create meaningful visualisations to convey specific messages

  • Interpret visualised data in a better way

  • Apply the basics of system thinking

  • Perform a simplified Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

  • Perform a simplified Substance Flow Analysis (SFA)

  • Create simple scenarios based on consistent story lines

After completion of the course students will know:

  • How to collect data and check data on consistency

  • The basic mathematical and software tools that can be used to solve simple quantitative problems related to sustainability analysis

  • The different options that are available for the visualisation, select the best visualisation to convey a certain message and to recognize manipulation with the visualisation of data

  • The basics of systems thinking

  • The basics Life Cycle Assessment and Material and Substance Flow Analysis

  • The basics of scenario analysis and Integrated Assessment in a policy context

Mode of Instruction

During this course 6 topics will be discussed: data handling, computational thinking, visualisation, LCA, SFA and Scenarios. Every topic will be introduced through a plenary lecture. At the end of the lecture an assignment will be introduced. Students will work in small teams or individually (depending on the number of participants). All teams will be asked to present the results of their work the next session, which will be graded. After the presentations the outcomes will be discussed in a plenary debate. Finally, in the last week there will be written, closed book exam.


The assessment of the course will consist of two parts: a set of 6 presentations, and a written exam in the last week. Students will work on assignments in small groups or individually. The assignment will be introduced at the end of the plenary lecture and will focus the particular topic of the week. The groups will present the outcomes of their specific assignment. A written closed book exam will used to test the individual understanding of the course.

Assessment: 6 Presentation(s) of assignments
Percentage: 60%
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1 – 7

Assessment: Written exam (closed book)
Percentage: 40%
Deadline: Week 8


Selected articles and texts will be handed out during class or uploaded on blackboard

Contact Information


Weekly Overview


Preparation for first session