Thinking in Systems

One of the Burlington School District’s five Graduate Expectations is Critical Thinking & Problem Solving. This crucial 21st century skill manifests differently in each classroom. In a math class, students might apply a variety of formulas to a complex word problem. In a science class, students might use a theory to explain an outcome. In a social studies class, students might use a data set to analyze historical trends and predict a future event. But what does critical thinking and problem solving look like…when you’re not in a classroom? 

In short, it’s messy–and that messiness is beautiful. Over the course of the semester, BCL students come to understand the city as a complex system — a living network of interdependent forces and impacts. Pull on any one strand, and the whole sweater comes undone. This can be disconcerting, as systems thinking doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Many of us have been trained to use discrete disciplinary skills and mindsets. However in the real world, all problems are interdisciplinary, and most variables are interdependent. And it’s the “inter-” that matters. Approaching problems using systems thinking invites us to explore the dynamic space between various issues. 

For the past several weeks, we have unpacked a variety of city systems, learning about the dynamics of a variety of Burlington’s systems, including but not limited to food, housing, transportation, energy, the local economy, government, and the arts. Each experience has offered rich insight, and deepened our connection to this complex little city. 

From a perch at Battery Park, it is evident that the history of Burlington’s Waterfront is intimately wrapped up in the history of transportation–and energy.  
At Burlington Electric Department, students worked with Jen Green, Burlington’s Director of Sustainability, to explore the city’s 2030 goals, and the ambitious path to get there. 
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Deep inside one of the most efficient buildings in the state, students use the Davis Center service elevator as a chance for a killer selfie.
 Lynn Wood, Physical Plant Zone Manager, explains how the Davis Center’s massive HVAC system was designed to exceed LEED Silver level. 

Our electricity comes from the grid. Unfortunately, we can’t install renewable energy on our property because we don’t have room for wind and our roofs don’t support solar panels. However, since the grid is one-hundred percent renewable this brings up the question of how much it helps the environment to install more renewable energy when the grid is one-hundred percent renewable. I suppose that it will help the electricity in the grid being more local. If enough people were to install renewable energy production locally, then the BED could decide not to buy electricity from places like Maine…

  • Tovin

I learned that my house is run by natural gas. We do this because it is the most affordable option. I also learned that my house bleeds a lot of heat. My brother’s room is right above the garage and the garage doesn’t have insulation, which makes the room quite cold and inefficient. The good news is that our new furnace and water heater are saving us about 50 dollars every month and that will add up to pay itself off. The city will actually pay you some money if you get one of these new more efficient furnaces because it saves them energy.

  • Alden

Something I learned about home energy systems is that everyone in Burlington’s electricity all comes from BED. I was unaware of that, and I also learned about my house and the costs can be double the price than what other renters in Burlington pay, due to the fact that we had to have both upstairs and downstairs of our house so we all have enough space. It made me be aware that I need to help out by turning off lights and not turn the heater on as often.

  • Najma

I think it’s interesting how natural gas fits into the sustainable energy conversation because it really isn’t in the conversation that much. As we’ve delved deeper into Burlington’s energy system, natural gas has not come up that much. Even the few articles on natural gas I read are both centered around public debate over logistics, not the sustainability of the energy. I think I’ve been reasonably well educated on the impact of fossil fuels on the atmosphere, and the sustainable energy alternatives like wind and solar that we need, but even I know next to nothing about natural gas. I know now that it’s a fossil fuel just like oil or coal, but I wouldn’t have been completely sure earlier. Why is natural gas not demonized as much as the others? Is natural gas something we should be avoiding? If so, why is there not more conversation about it? 

  • Sarah

Reading these articles and hearing about our own family’s energy habits, made me want to look deeper into what else my family can do to save more energy and make our house more efficient. My family has switched to LED light bulbs but I’m not sure if we have completely switched all of our lights. We have an old house so it would help our heating efficiency if we switched all of our windows to energy-efficient windows to lower the amount of heat exiting the house through the windows. Adding more insulation to our home would also help to lower the amount of heat leaving our house, reducing the heating costs. There are many ways my family can cut down on our heating costs, even by small changes to our house. 

  • Ana
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At Rhino Foods, BCL learned about the local economy, and how a B-Corp approaches everything from inclusive hiring to employee empowerment.


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Rhino Foods CEO, Ted Castle, told the story of his company’s origins, and drew connections from Burlington to the global food economy. 


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What does it mean to do quality work? What does it mean to feel like you are part of something bigger? Rhino Foods invests deeply in these questions, and in practices that help answer them.   
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Later that day, we celebrate the local food economy the right way–at American Flatbread! 
At American Flatbread, we learned about the nuanced decisions behind the company’s food sourcing–including the delicate balance of supporting both organic and local farms.
On North Winooski Avenue, a walk intended to explore the dynamics of neighborhood gentrification morphed into a moment we didn’t foresee, and couldn’t have planned. Prompted only by a hello, and an open-ended question, a local resident shared the changes he’s seen, and the intersection of housing policy, rental pressure, bike lanes, private developments, and the energy system. 

I never really talked with my parents about the process of buying a house or renting a house/apartment before my BCL project. I wasn’t really sure how they brought together any of the money for the process or how they even came across our house to begin with. It was interesting to see how their perspectives about what an ideal house was changed over time… It was especially interesting to hear about privilege and how that affects if you can buy a house. I can see this pretty well in Burlington, especially where I live. There are very few people of color in my neighborhood or in the other neighborhoods that are around me. It’s very annoying because growing up, the only experiences I had with people who weren’t white was with my family and with kids at school. What planners are doing with new housing now seems like it will be good for diversity, but there is still a huge problem with racial and class-based systematic segregation in Burlington and in the larger housing economy.

  • Liam

When my dad was 26, he purchased his first house in the Old North End of Burlington, and he completely renovated it. I knew about this before, but our discussions in BCL over the past few weeks have really got me thinking about how that may have contributed to some of the gentrification in the Old North End. However, I know that there was absolutely no malintent in my Dad’s decision to renovate his house. There’s nothing wrong with renovating your house, but I think it is important to pay attention to what the negative externalities might be. I also thought that it was interesting that our current house in the New North End is both bigger and less expensive than our old house in the South End. I mean, logically that makes total sense, living closer to the center of the city naturally costs more, but it was interesting to see everything we’ve been thinking about in BCL come into context in my actual life right away. That’s not something I’m used to experiencing with school. 

  • Ella

When thinking about housing, it’s important to keep in mind that there are people who struggle to afford housing but who don’t qualify for Section 8 housing. This is a program that helps people with little money to afford houses, but not everyone can get housing even when they work very hard. My interviewee said, “I also have a friend who works full time and can not even qualify for a Habitat for Humanity house.” Also, even when housing is technically cheap enough for people to afford, that doesn’t mean that everyone can afford it: “Some of the affordable housing isn’t truly affordable for some people.” This makes me wonder what causes housing to be expensive. 

– Tovin

Something new I learned while interviewing my brother was the cost of living wages in Burlington. Rent is very expensive and there is so much to pay for when renting a home– such as groceries, wifi bills, phone bills, car insurance, etc. You have to spend most of your time at work to afford living in Burlington. It made me understand why he spends most of his time at work. I think for someone his age, he has a lot of responsibility. It makes it hard for him to go back to school because of how much money is already being spent to have a car and home.

  • Najma

During the interview with my mom, she mentioned how high the rents are for the residents in Burlington. It was interesting to hear her say that because we have been talking about this in our program and how the cost of living in Burlington is too high compared to the wages in Burlington. She also mentioned how most of the landlords don’t keep up their properties for their tenants but are still charging way too much money for the property. It was interesting to hear that when my parents bought our house, almost 20 years ago, our street was mainly all owner-occupied houses and now it is all but 6 houses rented out to college students. My mom mentioned that it would help the housing situation in Burlington if the University provided more housing for the college students because it would leave more affordable housing for those with low-income. This helped me understand that the housing issue in Burlington has a lot of parts that tie into it, that there are many things that can affect it in a positive and negative way. 

  • Ana
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Anyone who has been to BHS at 8am or 3pm knows what it looks like when a transportation system is under-performing. And who knows more about this problem than the “end-users”–students? 
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In collaboration with the UVM Transportation Research Center, Green Mountain Transit, and Burlington’s Public Works Department, BCL students consulted on and administered a survey. Then, together with eight community partners, students analyzed the data and explored potential solutions. 
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Parker talks logistics with Phillip Peterson, a transportation engineer. 

One specific moment that I remember is that Phillip Peterson, a city engineer, kept reminding the group that there was always logistics to any possible solution. It showed how it takes many dedicated people and a lot of time to improve infrastructure even in a small city like Burlington.  

  • Parker

I loved sitting around the table with people who have pull in the community to brainstorm solutions. That part of the conversation felt empowering and inspiring. During that section of the conversation, I felt like my voice and opinion really mattered.

  • Ella

The best moment for me was when we worked in smaller groups. I think when we sat down with one or two partners that was really nice. You learned a lot more about them and I think it opened a place for introverts to get some words out.

  • Will
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Payton and School Department Chair, Clare Wool, think outside the box.

I thought that students being able to express their honest opinion about a system that affects them firsthand should happen more often, because we are the live data that these partners can use to help make a change.

  • Payton

I really enjoyed our meeting with these professionals because it made me feel like I actually had a voice in this issue. The community partners genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say, and the discussion was casual enough that conversation flowed freely. 

  • Sarah

I feel like working with professional community partners was really satisfying, because it made me feel like the things that we were saying and thinking have an actual purpose. I don’t have the same feeling when we do activities without people who can actually use our thoughts.

  • Alem
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Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco encourages everyone at the table, professionals and students alike, to design for multi-modal transit. 

Of course I think this kind of collaboration should happen more often, because I feel like the best critiques of a certain system are the people who live it everyday. The people who think about it every day are going to be the people who tell you the worst problems and come up with the best solutions.

  • Kaltuma

The feeling of helping making actually change is something that is rare in our education system. It was refreshing to feel like I was heard by people who could make an impact.

  • Sylvan

This should definitely happen more often. It’s not often that highschool students feel like they have a voice, especially in broad professional issues. I think this kind of learning will give all students courage when it comes to speaking out about greater world issues. 

  • Alesia


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Sophia, Emma, and Famo celebrate the future of transportation with Mayor Weinberger and Governor Scott.


For many BCL students, what happens during the semester is only the beginning of their journey of engagement and empowerment. For BCL1 alums Sophia Toche, Emma Barker and Famo Haji, it led to a press conference with Vermont Governor Phil Scott and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to celebrate the arrival of electric buses in Burlington. Sophia spoke at the event, saying,I want choices in my everyday life – like these electric buses – that can be part of the climate change solution. Our future is at stake. For my generation, this is personal. We plan to be here on this Earth for most of the next century, and we need a stable climate, and that means we need an economy that runs on renewable energy and serves the needs of all people.” 


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