How to use experience-based environmental projects

Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2007

Introducing the project

A student lying in the grass

Because experience-based projects require that students use their own lives as the basis for the assignment, it is important to introduce the activity in such a way that it poses an inspiring challenge, rather than a mandated change in lifestyle.

Helpful strategies include:

  • Create classroom discussions, role-playing exercises, debates or case studies that present the environmental topic that the project will address (such as CO2 output, energy use, or waste reduction) and look for solutions. Frequently, during the debate or discussion the concept of personal conservation or involvement will be suggested by the students themselves, making it easy to then follow up on that theme. This models the notion of "make it their own idea," which makes student participation more appealing.
  • Have students perform calculations on energy use, water consumption, waste output, or greenhouse emissions. Often the calculations themselves are an eye-opener and a motivator. Examples: Energy, water and waste data collection worksheet (Microsoft Word 100kB Jan10 06) Energy use Excel spreadsheet (Excel 27kB Jan10 06) Homework assignment with simple energy calculations (Microsoft Word 43kB Dec23 05)
  • Use a self-diagnostic quiz for students to determine their environmental impacts. Again, the results of the quiz can be motivating and can inspire students to take action. Examples: Eco-rating quiz (Microsoft Word 39kB Nov2 07) Ecological Footprint Quiz ( This site may be offline. )

Because these projects require significant lifestyle changes, it is not recommended that experience-based projects be mandatory for every student. If students feels forced into it, they may resent the assignment as a personal imposition. An easy solution is to create two separate assignments: an experience-based project and a traditional assignment such as writing a research paper. The students that are ready for a challenge and for something different will choose the experience-based option. Students that are not interested or are unable to participate in a lifestyle-based project can choose the traditional assignment.

General Tips

  • Keep the topic of the project active in the classroom throughout the duration of the project. Allow time for reflection, discussion and if needed, some guidance and motivation. Keep Kolb's cycle of experience-based learning in mind. Link lecture and lab topics back to the project so students can draw connections between their personal experiences and the subjects in the classroom.
  • Provide generalized feedback to the whole class, along with individual feedback to each student. Because each student's experience is personal, your feedback to them should be on a personal level too.
  • Do the project yourself! If you are expecting students to become personally engaged, then it's best if you lead by example. This helps establish a level of teamwork, trust and respect throughout the class.
See detailed teaching tips for the Lifestyle Project.

Feedback and Assessment

One way to track student progress and also provide a medium for reflective observation is through journaling. Journals are used as a means for assessing each student, as well providing them with specific feedback, guidance and motivation. Students turn in journals at regular intervals throughout the project. They report on their actions, reflect on what they've experienced and answer questions you've provided along the way. Students' journals also provide amazing insight into their lives and can be a very enriching read.

Example Project: The Lifestyle Project

For a specific example of using an experience-based project in your course, see the Lifestyle Project, along with the accompanying teaching notes and journals and assessment pages.