published August 22, 2013

Students Create "Environmental Dashboard" to Inform Community Decision-Making

Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

Most of us have looked at our water, electric, and gas meters at least once, and tried to figure out how the meter readings relate to the utility bills we receive every month. But how many of us know at any point in time exactly how much water we are using and electricity we are consuming as a whole community? Or whether the creek or river flowing through our community is at or near flood stage – in real time?

At Oberlin College, faculty and students affiliated with NCSCE 's GLISTEN (Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network) project have created an "Environmental Dashboard" which does just that for residents of Oberlin, Ohio.

Environmental Studies Professor John Petersen, who manages the project along with colleagues Cindy Frantz (Psychology) and Rumi Shammin (Environmental Studies), sees it as a way of re-connecting citizens to an environment from which they have become progressively alienated. According to Peterson:

Through the vast majority of our evolutionary history, humans experienced direct, intimate and continuous feedback on environmental conditions that informed individual and community decision-making. Our project is introducing technological feedback on resource consumption and environmental quality as a mechanism for reconnecting humans to nature, stimulating systems thinking, and motivating conservation of water and electricity.

The "Environmental Dashboard" uses digital public displays and websites to provide Oberlin residents with feedback on three levels. The "Building Dashboard" dynamically displays water and electricity consumption in individual buildings and residences throughout the community. The "City-wide Dashboard" is an animated display of real-time aggregate electricity and water use and stream water quality in the city. Finally, the "Community Voices" feature combines images and text contributed by the local community to celebrate thoughts and actions that promote environmental sustainability and resilience.

Undergraduate students at Oberlin have played key roles in developing, implementing and assessing the technology. Several students made a presentation on it at the SENCER Center for Innovation Great Lakes meeting in Cleveland last March. One of them, Shane Clark, a GLISTEN undergraduate stewardship liaison, has been playing a leading role in engaging teachers and students at Prospect Elementary School in the project. Shane reports:

Through my participation in GLISTEN, I've been able to build and strengthen collaborative relationships with organizations interested in addressing water conservation issues, both in my local community and across the Great Lakes region. At Prospect Elementary School, I've been able to help channel teachers' enthusiasm for the Dashboard into creating STEM-based curricula that will integrate information on water quality into the lessons of grades 3-5. I am particularly excited about increasing the elementary students' sense of connection to local, regional and global water resources by facilitating their participation, along with other community members', in World Wide Monitoring Day. I've also had the opportunity to coordinate the efforts of other engaged Oberlin students through our Practicum in Ecological Communication course, and I look forward to continuing that role this coming year.

Oberlin College students like Shane, in partnership with water and electrical utilities and the public school system, are playing critical roles in developing, implementing and assessing the impact of this technology. "Controlled research indicates that the Bioregional Dashboard significantly enhances several dimensions of systems thinking, including emotional connection with nature and understanding of causal connections," says Professor Petersen.

With the Oberlin pilot well under way, the technology is in the final stages of development. The Oberlin team has been in discussions with government and community leaders in a variety of cities including Cleveland, Chicago, Holland (MI) and Milwaukee. With support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the goal is to create Environmental Dashboards for communities throughout the Great Lakes states – and nationally. Petersen has already taken the first step by informing a national audience about the project: listeners of National Public Radio's "Living On Earth" heard all about it this summer. Listen here:

For more information on the Environmental Dashboard project, contact John Petersen ( or Shane Clark ( at Oberlin College.