Why Use the Campus as a Living Laboratory?

Initial Publication Date: September 25, 2006

"Using local examples connects classroom curricula to student lives in a way that textbooks do not. Incorporating local examples into classroom activities increases student confidence as it draws upon student experiences and background knowledge while demonstrating the connection between classroom curricula and student experience." (Harnick and Ross 2004)

Using the campus as a living laboratory can improve teaching by improving pedagogy and for practical reasons.

Pedagogical Reasons:

  • Students learn better when education builds on what they already know(National Research Council 2000; Kolb 1984; Zull 2002). This concept, also called situated learning, grounds education in the students' culture and experience (Lave and Wegner 1990). Place-based learning takes this concept a step further, recommending that the specific location of learning is important and can produce more engaged students (Sobel 2004). Because students already know their campus they will likely be more invested in learning new information about this particular familiar place.
  • Using the campus as a living lab is a type of service-learning. Service learning is a combination of community service and academic learning where students work on a community volunteer projects as part of their educational experience. Environmental studies courses commonly use service-learning as class projects (Ward 1999). The use of service-learning has shown to improve academic learning and student satisfaction (Astin et al, 2000)(Eyler and Giles, 1999), (Eyler et al 2001), (Lui, 2004).
  • Using the campus as a living lab promotes civic engagement. Many colleges and universities are beginning to emphasize educating society about civic responsibilities is a crucial element, if not the purpose of education (Boyte, 2002; Wingspread Declaration 1998; Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities 2002. Using the campus as a study site gives students an opportunity to be part of the campus community in a practical, hands-on way. If the students recommend action or use their study to improve the environment on the campus, the students have the opportunity to become engaged in the civic activity of the college or university.
  • Using the campus as living lab links student education with other environmental initiatives on campus. Numerous schools have started campus sustainability projects and programs. Campus sustainability links the campus to the larger environment by researching and improving the environmental performance of colleges and universities (Copernicus 2005; Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability 2005;National Wildife Federation 2005 ( This site may be offline. ) ;University Leaders for a Sustainable Future 2001 ) Campus-based learning can add academic research to sustainability initiatives,which can add a scientific and academic base to these activities.

Practical Reasons

  • Simple logistics: Transportation or lodging is not required for projects located on campus.
  • Inexpensive: Campus-based projects can be completed without a budget for field trips