The materials are designed to be used in an interdisciplinary course and can be adapted for upper level undergraduate students or graduate students. 
For more advanced classes, assign students different stakeholder groups or pre-class reading materials that include Myrbo, A. et al. (2017) and Pollman, C. D., et al. (2017).

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Describe a system by identifying the environmental and social components and interactions of the Minnesota wild rice case.
  • Describe feedback processes and identify a potential system leverage point for the case presented about Minnesota wild rice.


An entire course could be devoted to systems thinking. This module is designed to be adapted to fit within related courses to help students start to develop critical thinking skills about systems thinking and integrate social and environmental disciplines.

In Minnesota, an edible, nutty-flavored grain called wild rice, grows in shallow waters. Each fall, people harvest wild rice by canoe, using knocking sticks to strike plants, causing ripe grains to fall. The Ojibwe origin story tells of migrating from the East to where “food grows on water.” American Indian people retain treaty rights to harvest rice and make annual camps to harvest, dry, and prepare rice to store, for consumption, or sale. Outside reservations, Minnesota regulates the harvesting of wild rice.

In 1973, Minnesota enacted a sulfate level regulation for wild rice waters, stating that levels could be no more than 10 ppm, based on research showing lower wild rice growth in waters over this level. Recent research indicates sulfate reacts with elements in sediment and becomes sulfide, which is taken up the plant’s stem. Scientists proposed creating a sulfate limit using a formula and lake-by-lake measurements to better reflect the complexity of how rice grows, which requires more frequent and complicated testing. Weighing differing approaches to the protection of wild rice is fundamental to this case.

Minnesota’s regulation was scarcely enforced until 2010, when new copper-sulfate mines, one called PolyMet, were proposed in a mining region near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Miners on Minnesota’s “Iron Range,” named for the taconite ore used in steelmaking, generally support new mines. Environmentalists and American Indian community groups oppose them. While taconite tailings can cause sulfate runoff, there is comparatively less environmental damage from taconite mines than copper-sulfate mines.

Pre-Class Readings

Protecting Wild Rice from Excess Sulfate
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA)

Shallow Lakes: Minnesota’s Natural Heritage
Source: Water Resources Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Digging Into the Promise of Copper
Source: Minnesota Conservation Volunteer

Wild Rice Under the Microscope
Source: Minnesota Conservation Volunteer

In-Class Videos

Watch this video at the beginning of class

Manoomin: The Food that Grows on Water

Run time: 4 minutes, 23 seconds
Introducing Systems

The Value of Systems Thinking

Run time: 10 minutes, 9 seconds


Choose from the following activities based on the learning objectives for your course:

Explore an Interactive Wild Rice Map
Watershed Exploration
Creating a System Map

Explore An Interactive Wild Rice Map

Select a county or watershed to explore. Describe the wild rice lakes that are in that area and what factors could contribute to the presence or absence of wild rice waters in this area.
Where in Minnesota are the currently identified wild rice lakes? What characteristics of Minnesota’s topography could be contributing to the prevalence of wild rice?

Watershed Exploration

Introductory Level: Students review Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Watershed story map and come to class prepared to discuss the different scales of watersheds and how they might influence the system map.
Advanced Level: Students review DNR’s Explore Watershed Health Assessments and gain exposure to using GIS and ecological data associated with the watershed. Videos are available to learn how to use the map in GIS and select different hydrologic scales.

Creating a System Map

System mapping can be done as an in-class activity or as an assignment. See the attached slides for the Systems Thinking presentation for a sample class activity on creating a system map. Students can be assigned readings ahead of time or take on roles representing different stakeholder groups.

Introducing Feedback Loops

Watch the video on feedback loops: How nature gets its rhythms. In class, have students explain what positive and negative relationships they see as part of the wild rice scenario.

Understanding Unintended Consequences

Watch the video on unintended consequences: The One That Got Away (Size Matters). In the large group, have a discussion about what unintended consequences take place. Be sure to include the perspectives from various stakeholders.

Recommended Videos

Introduction to Systems Thinking

Introduction to Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking: A Way to Optimize

Systems Thinking: A Way to Optimize

Systems Thinking: Balance with Nature

Systems Thinking: Balance with Nature

Wild Rice – What They’re Saying

“There is an opportunity to come up with a science-based solution, but also a cultural-based solution.”

Rep. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota House of RepresentativesFlangan is also a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

“What WaterLegacy is saying, and what tribal leaders, both Chippewa/Ojibwe and Dakota are saying, is that we should keep the existing standard and enforce it consistently and rigorously in all wild rice waters.”

Paula MaccabeeAdvocacy Director and Counsel for Water Legacy, an environmental group

“Manoomin is priceless; it nourishes the soul, community, and bodies of the Anishinaabe. ”

Ashibok AubidSandy Lake Tribal Elder

“This is a complicated problem. It’s the most complicated problem I’ve worked on and that’s just the way of nature. Sulfide’s interesting relationship with iron is factoring into the proposed state standards as well as into our research questions.”

John PastorProfessor of Biology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth

“We stand in opposition because it’s based on bad research...I think the formula really had a lot of flaws and errors in the way they (PCA) approached it. They didn’t look at all the factors that impact wild rice other than sulfate — things like water depth.”

Kelsey JohnsonPresident of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota