Using the journey of chocolate, from the sun-drenched cocoa plantations to the sweet bars that we all know and love, IIASA researchers Ali Kharrazi and Zuelclady Araujo Gutierrez recently guided a group of young learners through the practical applications of systems thinking and life-cycle analysis in our everyday lives.

In the heart of Austria, nestled within the historic walls of Schloss Laxenburg, IIASA researchers, much like silent guardians, persistently delve into some of the world's most pressing issues. While their commitment to research is unwavering, many understand the value of reaching out beyond their academic enclave, especially to the fresh, untapped minds of the younger generation.

On a pleasant day in May this year, a unique blend of enthusiasm met curiosity. With the assistance of IIASA’s Capacity Development and Training (CDAT) Unit, we had the privilege of leading an exploratory session on systems thinking and life cycle analysis of something both delightful and universally adored: chocolate. This interactive session saw participation from 25 eager students from the Bilingual Junior High School in Wiener Neustadt.

A delightful dive into chocolate’s journey

The day unfolded with an introduction to systems thinking, inviting students to view the world and its multifaceted challenges as interconnected pieces of a vast puzzle. Using the journey of chocolate, from the sun-drenched cocoa plantations to the sweet bars that melt in our mouths, we showcased a real-life application of systems thinking and life-cycle analysis. It was intriguing to see the young scholars, probably chocolate aficionados themselves, delve deeper into something they often enjoy without a second thought.

Children at the IIASA chocolate workshop © IIASA

Students participating in activities during the workshop.

Handing them illustrative icons, pen, and paper, we set the stage for a hands-on activity. The room buzzed with energy as students mapped out the lifecycle of chocolate, focusing on climatic impacts at each stage. Guiding their exploration were key questions:

  • How does chocolate production influence climate change?
  • What ripple effects might climate change have on the very existence of chocolate?
  • Are there eco-friendly strategies to offset these impacts?
  • And in the face of a changing climate, how can we ensure our beloved chocolate stands the test of time?

More than just chocolate: gearing up for tomorrow’s challenges

The enthusiastic responses and discussions that ensued were a testament to the workshop's success. But beyond the immediate topic of chocolate, the students went away with tools to address the ever-growing challenges of our time, be it climate change, sustainable development, or anything that requires a holistic understanding.

Systems thinking as a discipline doesn’t just provide knowledge. It sharpens one's analytical and problem-solving acumen, pushing individuals to discern root causes, foresee potential outcomes, and craft sustainable solutions that consider every touchpoint. Similarly, life cycle analysis is not just a tool but a lens to view the environmental footprints of our choices, fostering more eco-conscious decisions.

Molding the global citizens of tomorrow

But why introduce these concepts to high school students, some might ask. The answer is simple. We're at the cusp of global shifts, and these young minds will soon be at the helm making decisions that impact us all. Proficiency in systems thinking and life cycle analysis not only primes them for diverse career paths—from environmental science and engineering to public policy and business management—but also shapes their worldview.

These sessions ensure that students grasp the social, economic, and environmental intricacies of global sustainability challenges. It transforms them from passive observers to proactive, environmentally conscious global citizens ready to champion the cause of a sustainable future.

After the enriching session, as the students wandered the corridors of Schloss Laxenburg absorbing its historic essence it was clear: while the walls of this edifice have seen centuries pass, it's also where the foundation for a brighter, more sustainable tomorrow is laid one young mind at a time.

Group of young pupils in front of Schloss Laxenburg © IIASA

Students from the Bilingual Junior High School in Wiener Neustadt in front of Schloss Laxenburg.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.