Action to Enhance Sustainability
This assignment is a 10-hour, out-of-class project where each student designs and carries out an action plan to enhance sustainability. Students select from a large suite of alternative actions, most of which can be quantified for reductions in CO2 and energy consumption, as well as in dollar savings. Students prepare a detailed log of their work, and calculate the benefits accrued from their action using data provided by the EPA and examples from lecture notes. Students realize from this first-hand experience how significant their individual actions can be in favorably impacting the environment, and how their actions are linked to global sustainability problems.
This project has proven to be very popular with the students, and they are frequently amazed by their calculated results. One of my students worked with a business in saving 14,930 kWh and almost 15 tons of CO2 per month, with a cost saving of more than $1,000 per month.
- Demonstrates how individual, relatively simple actions can significantly benefit the environment.
- Uncovers society's wasteful use of energy and materials.
- Shows that individual actions can help to enhance global sustainability (think globally, act locally).
Are higher order thinking skills developed by this activity?
- Yes, because students not only acquire new knowledge, but they apply this knowledge to an action they directly experience. Data analysis and quantification show the impact on their action on the biosphere, and connects individual actions to global impacts.
Are there other skills that are developed by the activity?
- They learn systems thinking as they discover how their local scale actions are linked to global scale problems.
- They acquire writing skills as part of their grade is the quality of their writing in their final reports.
- They acquire presentation skills as they are required to summarize the results of their action to the class; they also make a poster for their action, which is graded on its attractiveness and content.
- They learn how to set up a log, record and organize data.
How does this activity incorporate both sustainability and geoscience?
- Recycling is one of the more popular actions conducted by the students. Recycling is related to geoscience in a very obvious way. Consider, for example, the positive effect of recycling aluminum cans. In my lecture I show the energy and material flows required for producing aluminum cans from scratch, beginning with the mining of bauxite ores in Australia. We compare this hugely wasteful process to producing aluminum from recycling. See PowerPoint slide titled Industrial Paradigm Reflected in the Secret Life of a Half-Ounce Aluminum Can (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 176kB Jun20 12). The same types of calculations can be made for other recyclable materials such as plastic and glass bottles.
Context for Use
The students submit outlines of their action plans early in the semester. The plans must be approved by the instructor, and the action must be carried out over the course of the semester. Written reports are due at the end of the semester. It is fairly easy to adapt this activity to other educational settings.
Description and Teaching Materials
Teaching Notes and Tips
References and Resources
Author Notes: The following EPA references provided helpful data needed for recycling action projects:
Sources: Choate et al. (2005) Waste Management and Energy Savings: Benefits by the Numbers. Report to the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA (2006) Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks (3rd edition).