Introduction to Complexity (Fall, 2014)

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Course Date: 29 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 (11 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

In this re-offering of our popular introductory course, you'll learn about the tools used by scientists to understand complex systems. The topics you'll learn about include dynamics, chaos, fractals, information theory, self-organization, agent-based modeling, and networks. You’ll also get a sense of how these topics fit together to help explain how complexity arises and evolves in nature, society, and technology. There are no prerequisites. You don't need a science or math background to take this introductory course; it simply requires an interest in the field and the willingness to participate in a hands-on approach to the subject. 

Estimated Workload: 3-6 hours per week

Course Instructors

Melanie Mitchell

Melanie Mitchell is Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University,  and External Professor and Member of the Science Board at the Santa Fe Institute. She is the author or editor of five books and over 70 scholarly papers in the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and complex systems. Her most recent book, Complexity: A Guided Tour, published in 2009 by Oxford University Press, won the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award. It was also named by as one of the ten best science books of 2009, and was longlisted for the Royal Society's 2010 book prize.


When does the course start? March 31, 2014

When does it end? June 15, 2014

Who is the instructor? Melanie Mitchell, External Professor, Santa Fe Institute

How much does it cost? Nothing. The course is completely free.

How is the course funded? The course is funded by the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and by donations from users.   In order to support future courses, we will be asking for small, voluntary donations to cover the costs of developing and providing those courses.

Who is the intended audience and what are the prerequisites? This course is intended for anyone with an interest in complex systems. For this introductory course, there are no prerequisites, and no science or math background is necessary. The level is be similar to that of an interdisciplinary undergraduate class, though the topics are broad enough to be of interest to people ranging from high school students to professionals.

What topics are covered? This course is a broad overview of the sciences of complexity. There are 11 units; the first ten each covers one major topic in complex systems, and the final unit consists of a wrap-up of the course and a  "virtual field trip". See the course syllabus for specific topics.

How does the course work? Each unit consists of a series of short videos, with each video corresponding to subtopics of the unit's main topic. The course website leads you through the videos in order, allowing you to skip or repeat videos as you desire. You can watch these videos at your own pace and in any order you desire; once posted, they will remain available throughout the course.  The videos are interspersed with short exercises and quizzes, designed to test your understanding of the material covered in the previous video.  At the end of most units there is a test (graded automatically), as well as optional, ungraded homework.

How long does the course last? Through June 15, 2014. We expect that participants will complete about one unit per week; some will move through the material more quickly, and some more slowly. The videos and other course material will stay online after the course ends. 

What about exercises and quizzes? Many videos are followed by a short exercises or quiz that you can do online and that is graded automatically. These exercises and quizzes won’t count towards your final grade; their purpose is to allow you to try out simulations, to see how well you have understood the material in the video, and to see what you might need to review.

What about the tests? Most units will be followed by a test.  You will take the tests online, and they will be graded automatically.  Your grade for the course will be based on these tests, each of which counts equally.   Everyone who submits all the tests and receives an average score of 70% or above will receive a certificate of completion. You may use any of the course materials while taking the test, but we request that you do not consult other people or the Web for answers to test questions. 

And homework? Most units are followed by an optional homework assignments.   Each homework assignment is a combination of written exercises and experiments with computer simulations using the Netlogo platform (see below).    There will typically be different levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced) to choose from.   It will be up to you to choose the level of homework that is appropriate for you.   Although your homework will not be graded, we strongly encourage that you do it; it will really help you to better understand the course material!  Solutions to homework assigments will be provided as the course progresses. 

How is the course graded? As described above, your grade will be based on the end-of-unit tests.   Your total course score will be your average score over these tests.  Of course, since the course is not for credit, your scores are meant to be for your own tracking of your progress in the course. They will not be seen by anyone but you, and possibly our course team.

How well do I need to do to receive a certificate, and will the certificate list my grade? You need to have submitted all of the end-of-unit tests, with an average score of 70% or greater, by the course end date in order to receive a certificate of successful completion.   Your total course score will be the average of your test scores.  The certificate will not list your total score; it will simply say that you have successfully completed this course.  You will be able to print out  a copy of your progress report, which does have your test scores, at any time during or after the course.

What is Netlogo and how do I get it? This course uses the Netlogo simulation platform for examples, demonstrations, and homework assignments. Netlogo is a free software package that runs on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. No previous experience with Netlogo, or with computer programming, is required. The introductory videos of the course gives instructions on how to download and use Netlogo and further videos teach students the Netlogo language and how to develop their own simulations. You can download NetLogo at

Will Netlogo run on iPads or other tablets, or on smartphones? No, not yet, though the NetLogo team is working on this. For now you have to run it on a regular computer. Any computer running Windows, Macintosh, or Linux should work with NetLogo.

Is there a required textbook? No textbook is required.  The lectures will be complemented by numerous suggested readings that will be provided on the course web site.   Some of the units are based in part on Melanie Mitchell's book, Complexity:  A Guided Tour.  This book is a good companion volume to the course, but is not necessary for taking the course. 

Do I have to enroll to take the course?   Yes, you need to enroll in order to access any of the course materials.  However, enrollment is easy, quick, and free!

How do I enroll? Go to, then to Online Courses, and click the “Enroll” button next to this course. You will be guided through the short enrollment process, and then can immediately begin taking the course.  

Can I enroll after the course begins? Yes, but to receive a grade and a certificate you must register and complete the exams before the end of the course (i.e., by June 15, 2014).

How much time does the course require?  You should expect to spend 1–2 hours per week watching videos and taking quizzes and exams, and 2–4 hours per week on homework, for a total of 3–6 hours per week.

What are the rules on collaboration with other people? You are free, and encouraged, to discuss anything with anyone!  The course website hosts an online forum for students to discuss the course material, homework, etc. However, we ask that the end-of-unit tests be taken entirely on your own, without collaboration with others. Of course, we are relying on the honor system for our students to abide by these rules.

Can I get university credit for this course? No, not at this time. It is possible that in the future we may be able to partner with colleges and universities so as to offer our courses for credit, but there is currently no mechanism for this.

Will I get any kind of certificate? Everyone who successfully finishes the course will receive a certificate of completion from the Santa Fe Institute.

What is this Forum you've been talking about? The course website hosts a forum in which course participants can post questions, answers, and otherwise discuss the course materials. Questions posted to this forum will be answered by the instructor, teaching assistant, and/or other students.

Will there be any other kind of social networking for participants? We hope to help organize local "Meetups" via our course Forum for course participants who would like to meet in person.

I’d like to take this course, but I won’t have time to finish it by June 15, 2014. Will the course be offered again? Yes, we plan to offer this course again in Fall, 2014.

How do I get the videos to play at a faster rate (e.g., 2x)?  Our videos are streamed through YouTube.  You can opt in on YouTube for their html5 player, which allows you to speed up or slow down videos.  To opt in, go to

Can I download the videos directly, rather than watching them via YouTube?  Yes, just click on the "Download" button that appears above the video screen on the page for each video.   We will also make all the videos for each unit available as zip files on the Course Materials page. 

Will the videos and other course material be available after the course ends?  Yes.  After the course ends it will be on our "Archived Courses" list, under "Online Courses".  You will be able to access all parts of the course except for the discussion forum.  You also won't be able to submit any tests when the course is not in session. 

What if I have more questions? Please address any other questions you have to


  1. What is Complexity?
  2. Dynamics and Chaos
  3. Fractals
  4. Information, Order, and Randomness
  5. Genetic Algorithms
  6. Cellular Automata
  7. Models of Biological Self-Organization
  8. Models of Cooperation in Social Systems
  9. Networks
  10. Scaling in Biology and Society
  11. Wrapping Up; Virtual Field Trip

Course Workload

3-6 hours per week

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