Initial Publication Date: March 7, 2013

Empowering Students: Engaging in Solution Building for Society

Students' Skills and Self-Assessment

Students need authentic opportunities to practice the skills and attitudes to make positive change. They need experiences, becoming actively involved in the environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability. How can you, as a faculty member, intentionally foster the skills that students need to engage effectively in sustainability in their roles as worker, consumer, investor, community member? Here are a few pieces for inspiration:

  • For students to improve society as well as themselves as individuals, they need to develop these skills to create positive societal change (Microsoft Word 47kB Nov24 14) . Assignments that help students build these skills by working on real world issues will help.
  • For assessment, it is useful to have students reflect upon which skills they already have and which they want to develop further. Use this Self-Assessment of Change Agent Skills (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 13kB Mar7 13). After having students assess their skills, you might ask them to write about their strengths and weaknesses and include ideas of how they could strengthen their skills in areas where improvement is needed.

Civic Learning and Engagement

As a strategic educational approach, civic engagement works!

Thoughtful and purposefully designed civic engagement activities yield greater learning and increased graduation rates in K–12 schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions (Astin and Vogelgesang 2006; Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison 2006; Prentice and Robinson 2010). In fact, Gent (2007) has argued that civic engagement is one way to ensure that no student is left behind.

  • Students who participate in civic engagement learn more academic content (Gallini and Moely 2003).
  • Civically engaged students learn higher-order skills—including critical thinking, writing, communication, mathematics, and technology—at more advanced levels of aptitude (Cress 2004).
  • Civic engagement increases students' emotional intelligence and motivates them toward conscientious community action (Bernacki and Jaeger 2008).

While many variations of civic engagement exist across the country, those statistically proven to be most effective for promoting student success have three essential elements:

  1. Intentional campus, community, and conceptual connections
  2. Collaborative learning relationships among instructors, students, and community participants
  3. Integration into educational expectations and organizational performance

One particularly engaging example is [link'course and campus or co-curricular conversations'] , an activity which gets students involved with clean energy, climate change solutions, civic engagement, and civil discourse skills.

For more on this research, see

Articles and Web sites on Civic Engagement

In "Preparing Students to Be Citizens," the lead article in the January/February 2013 issue of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education and Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities...
  • Make the case for the importance of civic learning experiences and "face-to-face work in our communities on problems that affect our future, such as poverty, literacy, nutrition, health, and the environment."
  • Share the framework spelled out in A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, calling on educators to use real-world problems, public questions, and civic inquiry in every field of study. We see issues of Sustainability as fitting in this approach in just about every discipline in the sciences and social sciences.
  • Describe the nine objectives of Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action. Each of the nine steps that the US Department of Education is undertaking to provide leadership and support for civic learning as a national priority can be supported with Sustainability experiences.

The National Center for Science and Civic Engagement...

  • Serves as a national resource for the improvement of undergraduate science education, inspiring, supporting, and disseminating campus-based science education reform strategies that strengthen learning and build civic accountability among students in colleges and universities.
  • Aims to better equip individuals and communities with the scientific knowledge and literacy to evaluate competing claims about serious public issues, and ensure that today's students will be able to use scientific methods, knowledge, and practices in their role as conscientious, effective citizens.
  • Focuses on "The Environment," with specific topics of interest that include: biodiversity; land use policy and practice; food security; transportation; and water and air quality.

Authentic engagement in Sustainability would do well to follow these High-Impact Community Engagement Practices (HICEPs) which emphasize the following aspects in better serving the information and knowledge needs of community and governmental organizations and constituencies:

  1. place: place-based learning that incorporates community understanding, context, and assets and includes community voice in defining relationships and projects
  2. humility: knowledge co-creation in which partners, students, and faculty share co-educator status
  3. integration: of both co-curricular and curricular contexts and structures)
  4. depth: multi-year strategic agreements for capacity building)
  5. development: grounding in appropriate student and partner developmental needs, changing over time
  6. sequence: scaffolded projects evolving over multiple semesters or calendar years
  7. teams: involving multiple participants at different levels
  8. reflection: structured and unstructured oral, written, and innovative formats)
  9. mentors: dialogue and coaching by partners, peers, and/or faculty)
  10. learning: collaborative and responsive teaching and learning opportunities)
  11. capacity building: designed to build the organization/agency over time)
  12. evidence: integration of evidence-based or proven program models)
  13. impact orientation: identifiable outcomes and strategies for evaluation and measurement

AAC&U's Core Commitments initiative recently released "Promising Practices for Personal and Social Responsibility: Findings from a National Research Collaborative", which summarizes national research about the relationships between particular educational practices and outcomes related to personal and social responsibility.

In a recently released report, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) calls for educational leadership to address gaps in civic knowledge and participation currently afflicting American society. The report, "Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States", points to distressing findings about students' low levels of civic knowledge and troubling correlations between educational level and civic engagement.

The Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory measures campus climate along five dimensions:

  1. Striving for Excellence,
  2. Cultivating Academic Integrity,
  3. Contributing to a Larger Community,
  4. Taking Seriously the Perspectives of Others, and
  5. Developing Competence in Ethical and Moral Reasoning and Action.

Initially developed in connection with AAC&U's Core Commitments initiative, the inventory is now being administered by the Research Institute for Studies in Education at Iowa State University.