Environmental Footprint

Christina Gallup, University of Minnesota Duluth
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In this homework/in-class activity, students as homework take a web-based quiz that calculates their personal, the nation's, another developed country's, and an undeveloped country's environmental footprint. They add their results to a page on the class website. In class, the students work in groups to think about how we would determine the class mean footprint, how we would plot on a bar graph the mean, the national, the other countries' and a sustainable footprint, and about several related questions. We finish by looking at other ways the data could be plotted that would show different attributes /meaning.

Learning Goals

The goals are to get students comfortable making simple calculations, plotting one-dimensional graphs, and viewing graphs with a discriminating eye.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for any course that deals with global warming/resource use. It is designed to use at the beginning of an introductory course to introduce doing simple calculations and graphs. It could easily be adapted to use in other settings.

Description and Teaching Materials

  1. Students take the web-based footprint activity at home (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=myfootprint) for
    • themselves,
    • someone in another developed country, and
    • someone in an undeveloped country.
  2. Students e-mail the results of their own footprint, our national average footprint, and the national averages of the other countries they picked to the instructor or input into the class website as well as bring their numbers to class.
  3. Instructor finds the mean of the data and plots some bar graphs of their own personal footprint compared with the class mean, the other countries, and the sustainable footprint.
  4. In class, before the instructor tells the students what the mean is, the students turn to their neighbor to figure out the equation for how you calculate a mean. The students then vote for a correct answer in a multiple choice question shown to the class.
  5. Instructor encourages discussion about the results. How does their personal footprint compare to the class average, to the national average, to other nation's averages, to a sustainable footprint?
  6. Instructor asks students what might be a good visual way to represent the data so that this comparison might be easier? Students then turn to their neighbor to plot a bar graph of the various footprints that have been discussed, making sure to label their axes. The students then vote for a correct answer in a multiple choice question shown to the class.
  7. Instructor shows the students alternative ways to plot the data. Ideas for plots that could be shown are 1) a bar graph of the ratio of a given footprint to the sustainable footprint, 2) a plot of the no. of biologically productive acres per person in a country versus the country's average footprint. Instructor encourages discussion of how many graphics they've seen in the newspaper, their textbooks, whether they've thought about how many different ways the data could be represented.
  8. Instructor can follow up with some simple calculations that can be done with the data, such as:
    • How many biologically productive acres are there in the world? (If there are 4.5 biologically productive acres per person and there are 6.2 billion people on Earth...)
    • What percentage of the planet would be needed just for the US? (If average footprint is 24 acres per person and we have 300 million people...)
    • How many total acres of land are there in the world?


Their understanding of writing the equation for the mean and making a one-dimensional graph are assessed with multiple choice questions.

References and Resources

The main resource is the website to take the environmental footprint quiz. This is a site produced by the earthday network. The quiz is based on national consumption averages, so the questions are designed to see if you consume more or less than the average person in your country. At the end of the quiz, the site tells you your footprint and how that compares to the national average. It also tells you how many planets would be required if everybody had your lifestyle.