All Systems Go

Summer 2015

shutterstock_200804189_FOR WEBHow would Los Angeles react to the release of a toxic airborne agent? How does an epidemic spread across a town, a country, or the world? What did the ancient Anasazi civilization look like, and why did it disappear? In Systems Science for a Dynamic World, a new course taught by Joshua Epstein and Erez Hatna through the Johns Hopkins Systems Institute, undergraduates are learning how to build and interpret mathematical models that help answer these questions.

“Our goal is to prepare students to apply a systems perspective to any field. Beyond learning to build models, students will be able to experiment with them, understand and critique them, explain their results, and use them in almost any discipline,” says Epstein, a professor in Civil Engineering and Applied Mathematics and Statistics who has a joint appointment in the School of Medicine.

The course couples instruction on building mathematical and computational models in the NetLogo modeling environment with a multidisciplinary overview of subjects explored through models—including topics as disparate as the spread of infectious diseases, the dynamics of revolution and civil violence, ethnic segregation, land use change, and urban disaster preparedness.

Epstein and Hatna, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine’s Center for Advanced Modeling, show students what models in different subject areas have in common and how these models can be used to predict outcomes, explain behavior, and guide policy.

Maxwell Yaron ’15, a mechanical engineering major, says that learning to model human behavior will help him be a more effective engineer. “When I design a product for a user, it’s hard to know how the product and the user will interact. With what I’ve learned in this class, I can build a model to predict the interaction and use it to create a better design.”