Exploring student perceptions, behaviors on sustainability

A recently published research project explores student perceptions about sustainability at Iowa State and how they felt curricular and extracurricular activities prepare them to approach sustainability challenges post-graduation. Students, faculty and staff affiliated with the Consortium for Cultivating Human And Naturally reGenerative Enterprises (C-CHANGE) completed the research last spring. 

"One of the findings that jumped out right away is that students do feel that they are getting problem solving skills and feel empowered by their education and extracurricular experiences here at ISU," J. Arbuckle, sociology professor and C-CHANGE team member, said of the results. "However, many do not feel adequately prepared to engage with sustainability challenges post-graduation. They don't necessarily want more courses that are specifically about sustainability -- they want sustainability thinking to be integrated into most if not all of their courses."

The study also found that while students are interested in learning more about sustainability, they don't always pursue opportunities to get involved in activities and coursework related to it. Researchers cited three common barriers -- lack of awareness, courses and time -- and provided suggestions for improvement such as utilizing university communication channels to highlight sustainability coursework and events, integrating more sustainability themes into existing coursework and adding more sustainability-related courses overall.

C-CHANGE Student Perspectives on Sustainability at ISU Report 20

Read the report and learn more about C-CHANGE at cchange.research.iastate.edu.

Eighty-two percent of respondents also shared concern for the future if sustainability is not prioritized by society and more than 80% expressed that everyone, regardless of their field of study, should learn more about sustainability. Arbuckle said students in the focus groups echoed these sentiments and talked about the pressure of graduating into a world with increasingly serious sustainability challenges like climate change, water quality impairment and soil degradation. These students expressed that they want to be prepared in their discipline to be hirable candidates with skills to grapple with and respond to these issues.

"The number one takeaway is that Iowa State students want more engagement with sustainability both in their coursework and extracurriculars. They want sustainability thinking integrated across the board," Arbuckle emphasized. "Students recognize the sustainability challenges that we face as a country and as a world, and they want to be equipped to tackle them when they graduate and join the workforce."

Next steps

How can faculty and staff infuse more sustainability thinking into their work with students? Arbuckle says a good place to start is by identifying practical ways it can be incorporated into courses, disciplines and activities. "Everyone can find a creative way to integrate sustainability into their coursework, and the data from this research shows that many students would appreciate that," he said.

The report is the beginning of the dissemination process for this project. So far, it has been shared with leadership across campus and Jonah Gray, one of the students on the C-CHANGE team, presented a poster with the research at the Live Green program's Sustainapalooza on Feb. 21. Arbuckle said they plan to do more in-depth analysis of the data and are considering administering the survey every few years to gauge trends and progress at the university.

"From my perspective, the results are hopeful because it shows that students really care and want ISU to be a leader in sustainability," Arbuckle said. "As administrators, faculty and staff, we need to raise awareness of the sustainability-related research, education and outreach going on right now, as well as consider how to better incorporate sustainability thinking into more facets of the educational experience here at ISU."

The project

The research design and data collection effort were initiated in spring 2021 and administered between October 2021 and May 2022. The research team for Student Perspectives on Sustainability at Iowa State University used a mixed methods approach, collecting data through focus groups and a survey. They conducted five focus groups with undergraduate students from the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering and Design who were involved in sustainability efforts on campus. Themes that arose from the focus groups helped the team design the survey, which it distributed to more than 15,000 juniors and seniors to understand their experiences with sustainability in their coursework and extracurricular activities at Iowa State.

C-CHANGE began in 2018 as a presidential interdisciplinary research initiative and expanded in 2020 to a multi-institutional consortium led by Iowa State with the goal of sparking interdisciplinary collaborations to address a variety of sustainability topics, especially those relating to agriculture.