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NES8313 : Dynamics of Coupled Human-Natural Systems

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Marion Pfeifer
  • Lecturer: Dr Hannah Davis, Dr Rachel Gaulton, Dr Sarah Coulthard, Professor Philip McGowan, Dr James Guest, Professor Yit Arn Teh
  • Owning School: Natural and Environmental Sciences
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
  • Capacity limit: 80 student places

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


The overall aim of this module is to introduce the concept of coupled human and natural systems (Coupled Socio-ecological Systems (CHANS)) and to investigate how it can be used to find solutions for global challenges such as food security and sustainable use of natural resources. Humans have interacted with the environment since the beginning of human history. However, the scope and intensity of these interactions have changed dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. CHANS research is integrative and interdisciplinary across the social and natural sciences seeking to understand the complexity of interactions between humans and nature and the feedbacks arising from these interactions. For example, humans modify the environment through land use changes and fossil fuel use thereby affecting local and global climate. Climate in turns affects vegetation and humans, at local, regional and global scales with impacts becoming apparent over short or long time scales.

This is a module that draws on a series of lectures, and interactive seminars and workshops to support students to build a foundation of knowledge the CHANS framework, the challenges they face under current and future global environmental changes, the data needed to monitor and analyse responses to these challenges and to use that information for the creation of evidence-based solutions to these challenges. We particularly focus on the use of the CHANS concept as the base for modern conservation science adopted in practice by academics, government and non-governmental organisations.

Outline Of Syllabus

The module will be taught as a 20 credit core module and will be compulsory for students across five MSc degree programmes at SNES: Wildlife Management, Ecology & Conservation, Ecological Consultancy, Global Wildlife Science and Policy, Computational Ecology.

The module will build on existing research and teaching expertise in SNES. The students will be taught in lectures to convey essential information required to understand the key ideas of CHANS. These lectures are designed to cover some of the recently published top 40 questions in CHANS research (Kramer et al. 2017 Ecology and Society 22:44). The lectures will be followed by interactive seminars that will require the students to actively engage with the material taught in the lectures and to apply the knowledge they acquired to answer a range of questions, including: What are the challenges presented for the case study? Which methods have been used to address these challenges? Have these methods been successful and if not, why not? We will run a ‘policy brief’ exercise, requiring students to look at a CHANS challenge from the viewpoint of a decision and policy maker. This will encourage the students to critically engage with the concept and examine how the concept can be exploited to formulate accessible key messages for policy makers. Finally, the students will be asked to further develop their conceptual understanding of the CHANS framework by engaging with a CHANS using an applied perspective (‘What is a possible solution to a specific challenge’) and using a philosophical perspective (for example ‘Is the Valuing Nature approach to conservation an example for conservation selling its soul’).

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture141:0014:00Delivered as recorded webinars. They might be delivered as 30 minutes talks followed by questions
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion130:0030:00Oral presentation preparation
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion147:2047:20Assessment 2 - Policy brief and Technical report (essay style assessment) to be prepare from home
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion10:400:40Assessment 1 - see student-led group activity. The pres slides will be submitted via TurnItIn.
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading202:0040:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesPractical12:002:00Policy brief practical
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching13:003:00Interactive workshop with students working on groups on a CHANS challenge - working through cycle
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching71:007:00Tutorials in person
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops41:004:00Seminars, 30 min talk and subsequent discussion, mostly external speakers (international)
Guided Independent StudyStudent-led group activity124:0024:00Student led work. Students will be split into teams: 3-4 per team. Two teams will form one group.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study128:0028:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The teaching methods are designed to align with the Learning Outcomes. Following the lectures, which provide an overview on key ideas and examples of CHAN, the students are asked to read and research some of the CHANS case studies in more detail using publications provided and additional literature. This directed reading will also prepare them for the subsequent interactive seminars, in which they will be asked to apply the knowledge they acquired to answer a range of questions. Lectures and seminars will be structured using a problem-centred approach with real-world examples The ‘policy brief’ practical as well as the two workshops are designed to allow students to test themselves on their understanding of the CHANS concept and its relevance for applied conservation and management. During all three exercises, students will work in groups to engage with the material in depth using publications and teaching material provided by the supervisors. Students will be guided through their independent analysis of information when writing the policy brief and technical following workshops 1 and 2 (summative assessment) and when presenting their arguments during workshop 2 (summative assessment).

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Oral Presentation401M30Group based presentation of arguments during second workshop
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Report1M701000 words summary and 1500 words underlying technical report
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

There will be two assessments, and these are aligned with the intended learning outcomes and the taught material.

During the first workshop, researching a specific CHANS challenge (e.g. agro-forestry systems in the tropics), students will work in groups of up to 12 students each to discuss a particular coupled human and natural system (e.g. in 2018 the challenge was ‘ Reversing the tiger decline in Asia’). They will work to identify arguments for four key aspects: identify challenges/threats, delineate possible solutions to manage the challenges, list tools and methods that could be used to implement these solutions, set a management plan (using framework of ‘adaptive cycle of management’).

During the second workshop, students will work with 6 students per group, with 3 in the ‘pro’ team and 3 in the ‘contra’ team. They will work through key literature (provided) and can add literature. They will prepare power-point presentations prior to the workshop (guidance through staff). They will subsequently be assessed: the teams will argue their case, choosing speakers within the group for pro- and contra- sides and they will need to make the topic accessible. Per team: 5 minutes introduction, 10 minutes per group for presentation, then up to 10 min debate between the two teams. So a total of 40 minutes assessment time per group.

For the report assessment, the students will write policy brief (technical summary for specific audience: policy-makers) with associated technical report that will contain a critical discussion on one example of a CHANS, reflecting on possible pathways to manage the challenges faced by this particular CHANS and develop a coherent strategy from assessment to solution to manage this particular CHANS.

Reading Lists