The Lifestyle Project

Karin Kirk, Montana State University/SERC and John J. Thomas, Skidmore College

This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2007 | Reviewed: May 10, 2019


This three-week project challenges students to learn about environmental alternatives by modifying their own lifestyles. Throughout the project, students reduce their impacts on the environment by changing the way in which they live from day to day.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Jefferson County landfill, Colorado
Jefferson County landfill, Colorado. Photo by David Parsons
Learning goals include the following:

  • Which everyday tasks require large inputs of energy
  • Which everyday tasks do not require a lot of energy
  • Simple ways to reduce energy use
  • The details of what can and cannot be recycled in their community
  • Simple ways to reduce garbage output
  • Simple ways to reduce water consumption
  • The connection between food production and energy use

In addition to the learning goals listed above, students will come to understand that they do indeed play a role in the big picture. While it is easy to blame others for environmental problems, students will realize that they are both part of the problem and part of the solution. Students will also learn that making small changes to their lifestyles is not difficult and they can easily reduce their personal impact on the environment.

Context for Use

Crews installing solar thermal collectors on the roof of a zero-energy house
The Lifestyle Project can be used in introductory courses in environmental geology, environmental science and physical geology, and could in fact be used in almost any earth science or environmental science course with some modifications. For example, in an upper-level course the students could analyze their environmental impacts in a more quantitative manner and provide in-depth calculations of their energy and water use.

it is important to introduce the project in such a way that the students are poised to take on an unusual challenge. This can be accomplished by conducting an in-class discussion on the challenges of our energy consumption, and/or by giving a quiz about environmental habits or the students' ecological footprint. The outcome of these preparatory activities should be that students begin to question their own environmental impacts and that they are motivated to alter their personal behavior. The Lifestyle Project teaching notes page contains some specific ideas for introducing the project.

The project begins when the class discusses energy resources during a lecture or lab period. There is usually one week of introduction, baseline calculations, and time for everyone to choose their categories. After that the project runs for three weeks. Some planning must be done to allow the project to fit into the rest of the course schedule. When the project runs into things like Thanksgiving or Spring Break, it can actually be a good thing because it gives students a chance to try out the project "on the road" and they gain even more insight. It is important that the project is not strictly mandatory, because students can't be forced into making lifestyle changes. Thus, the project should be optional, with the other option being a 5+ page research paper. I have found that if the project is introduced in a way that sets up an interesting challenge, the majority of students will choose to participate.

Description and Teaching Materials

  • Lifestyle Project (Microsoft Word 43kB Oct27 10)
    (dates and specifics will need to be changed to fit your course)
  • Baseline data collection (Microsoft Word 100kB Jan10 06) This can be used to determine pre-project usage patterns
  • Simple worksheet (Microsoft Word 43kB Dec23 05) Students can calculate the energy use of various tasks (similar to the handout above, but shorter)
  • Excel spreadsheet (Excel 27kB Jan10 06) For calculating energy use
  • The same spreadsheet, filled in to use as an example (Excel 27kB Jan10 06)
  • BTU calculation assignment (Microsoft Word 43kB Dec23 05)
  • Eco-Quiz A fun and qualitative way to assess the "eco-rating" of each student. There are several examples of this quiz, adapted for use at different campuses.
  • Rubric for journal assessment (Microsoft Word 30kB Oct27 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Student journals are the basis for grading the lifestyle project. For each week of the project, journals are graded on a 10-point scale. It is difficult to assign a numerical grade for something so subjective, but criteria for grading the journals include the effort the student puts forth, the depth to which the student describes the details of their experience, their sincerity, and the commitment they demonstrate. If there is an additional homework assignment added to the project, such as calculating the BTUs for shower use or computer time, then that is graded separately.

References and Resources

The Lifestyle Project was featured in the November 2007 issue of Geotimes Magazine, in an article titled, Students Change Their Lifestyles bibliographic information .

The project was described in two articles in the Journal of Geoscience Education. The first article is by the project creators and the second article is a response from one of the Journal editors after he had used the project in his course.

One of the most exciting manuscripts published in 2003 was "The Lifestyle Project" by Karin Kirk and John Thomas. I found it so intriguing that, even before the review process was finished, I had adapted it for use in my "Introduction to Environmental Issues" class.

-Dexter Perkins, Associate Editor, Journal of Geoscience Education

from Perkins, D., Comments on the Lifestyle Project, Journal of Geoscience Education, v.52 no. 2, Mar. 2004, p. 197

Other Examples of the Lifestyle Project

Resources for the Lifestyle Project