Sustainability study shows gap between what students say and do
When it comes to their carbon footprint, Indiana University Bloomington students wear one of two sizes: large and extra large. That's the case even though students place a high importance on environmental issues, according to analysis of a survey by an IU sociology class.
Doctoral student Oren Pizmony-Levy developed and teaches the course, called S110: Charts, Graphs and Tables. He and Justin Aguirre, an undergraduate who served as a teaching assistant for the fall 2009 class, presented the findings recently to the IU Public Sociology Forum, a Department of Sociology initiative that brings together students and faculty who are interested in making sociology more immediately relevant, applicable, and visible to non-sociological audiences.
"What the survey found is that there's a gap occurring -- there's a gap between what students care about and what they're willing to do about it," Aguirre said.
Students who take the S110 course are more engaged because they are actually doing sociology, Pizmony-Levy said. By collecting, analyzing and presenting data, they learn that sociology is a scientific process, not just a body of knowledge.
The course is also a service-learning opportunity, providing a data set that can be tapped for efforts to improve environmental sustainability on the IU Bloomington campus.
Students in the class surveyed more than 600 of their fellow IU undergraduates, administering a 94-item questionnaire to gauge attitudes and behaviors toward the environment. The survey respondents included freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, along with a gender, racial and ethnic mix similar to that of the undergraduate student body.
Among the findings:
- Students, on average, rated the environment 4.53 on a scale in which 6 meant "I care a great deal" and 1 meant "I don't care at all." Only education, the economy and health care were rated higher (see chart).
- Students ranked air pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and water pollution as the most serious environmental problems. Acid rain and suburban sprawl rated the least serious (see chart).
- When it comes to environmental behaviors, students were most likely to recycle or to ride a bike or walk to campus, instead of using a car; they were least likely to turn off computer screensavers, unplug appliances when not in use, and buy locally produced goods (see chart).
- Students split evenly when asked if they would accept reductions in their standard of living to protect the environment.
In the hierarchy of environment-friendly behaviors -- recycle, reuse, reduce and reject -- students were likely to stop at the first level, recycling their trash but not doing much to curb consumption, the survey found. That reluctance to reduce their use of consumer goods and energy could help explain why the students didn't do well on measures of whether their lifestyle is sustainable.
Survey results on student behaviors were plugged into an online calculator to determine the size of the typical IU student's "ecological footprint" -- the area of land and ocean required to support consumption of food, goods, services, housing, and energy and to assimilate wastes. The result: 44 percent had a "large" carbon footprint and 56 percent an "extra large" footprint.
"This is the depressing part," Pizmony-Levy said.
Respondents were more likely to have an "extra large" carbon footprint if they were male, heterosexual, from an upper- or upper-middle-class background, or if their parents had attended or graduated from college. The finding on parental education, in particular, surprised students in the class.
Some participants in the Public Sociology Forum disputed that result, contending that college students are more likely than other Americans to live in close quarters and walk and bike to school or work. Others said students also take long showers, use the car for quick trips to the store and don't worry about conserving energy when they aren't directly paying the utility bills.
Bill Brown, director of the IU Office of Sustainability, who attended the presentation by Pizmony-Levy and Aguirre, said the survey results match what campus officials see in terms of student behaviors.
"There's a big disconnect between what people say they're concerned about and what they're actually doing," he said. But Brown said small steps forward and expressions of support for sustainability are important. Recycling, for example, can be seen as "the gateway drug to environmentalism."
Brown said the S110 data could provide to be valuable in designing and implementing policies to engage students with sustainability practices. "It helps us understand more what the issues are and what we might do about them," he said.