The Lifestyle Project at West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Tim Lutz, Department of Geology and Astronomy, West Chester University
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Initial Publication Date: May 8, 2009 | Reviewed: May 10, 2019


This five-week project asks students to examine the environmental outcomes of their lifestyle choices, to investigate and try out more sustainable choices, and to write about their experiences so that other students can learn from them.

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Learning Goals

Students are asked to

  • Examine their 'business as usual' resource consumption and waste generation by paying attention to their daily activities;
  • Systematically characterize their activities during a baseline period using quantitative measures;
  • Recognize the environmental and health implications of their activities (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions);
  • Investigate and try out new, more sustainable lifestyle choices, and compare the outcomes to their 'business as usual' results;
  • Reflect on their project outcomes and write compact summaries for the University's Environmental Council website to tell other students what they learned from the project.

Context for Use

West Chester University is a public, comprehensive university within Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education. The University enrolls about 12,000 undergraduates, more than half of whom live off-campus. The Lifestyle Project was run in Humans and the Environment, an introductory, interdisciplinary course. Each University student is required to take at least one course with an interdisciplinary designation; most students take the course to fulfill that requirement. They span the range from first-year students to seniors, from undeclared students to those in a variety of science and non-science majors, from the environmentally active to the environmentally reactionary.

I used the project in three sections of about 32 students each. The project was situated in the last third of the course and was worth 20% of the course grade. Prior content included: principles and practices of science; climate change science and policy; environmental and geopolitical consequences of oil consumption, including peak oil; environmental consequences of coal mining and electricity consumption; embedded energy in food and technologies; ecological footprinting, including carbon and water footprints. This part of the course enabled students to recognize the long chains of energy and resource flows on which they depend and to consider their own positions and responsibilities as end-of-chain consumers.

The project began with a 1½ -week introduction that included:

  • practical aspects of measuring electrical energy consumption using a Kill A Watt™ meter;
  • estimating gasoline (driving) and water (food and personal use) consumption;
  • health and environmental consequences of food choices;
  • using Excel tables to organize their observations;
  • using Excel calculators to convert energy into a common carbon currency—charcoal briquettes.

Students selected at least two areas of study from: electricity, driving, water, food, waste/recycling. During a subsequent four-day baseline period they paid attention to their business-as-usual activities. They kept two parallel records: a log, which contained their observations and data; and a journal which contained their daily reflections. After receiving feedback on their logs and journals they began a seven-day experimentation period in which they were to reduce their environmental impact. Specific modes or levels of action were not prescribed. For example, gasoline use might be decreased by automobile maintenance, changing driving style, planning fewer trips, foregoing 'fun' driving for other activities, carpooling, walking or biking instead of driving, taking public transportation—whatever worked for the individual. They were encouraged to record all the information that seemed relevant to making a change: time and money spent or saved; personal satisfaction; reactions of friends, roommates, and family. At the end of the experimentation period students were asked to assess the results of their actions on daily and annual timeframes in their journal.

A final, and key, component of the project was for each student to write a capsule summary by providing brief answers to such questions as, "What change are you most proud of accomplishing?", "What kept you from accomplishing more?", "How did friends, roommates, family react to your work on the Project?", and "Will you keep the changes you made for the Project?" Each student had the option of giving permission for his/her summary to be incorporated into a catalog of lifestyle experiences to be posted on WCU's Environmental Council web site. I assembled the summaries into a slide show for our final exam period so that everyone could see what had been accomplished.

Description and Teaching Materials

Lifestyle Project Introduction (Microsoft Word 32kB May11 09) - an overview of the project for the students

Lifestyle Project examples (PowerPoint 169kB May11 09) - slides show how to organize information, make calculations, and keep a journal

Instructions for Lifestyle Project summary (Microsoft Word 23kB May11 09) - questions to guide writing the capsule summary

Lifestyle Project checklist (Microsoft Word 23kB May11 09) - reminders of what has to be turned in, when, and what is important for evaluation

Energy & CO2 calculator for electricity and driving (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 24kB May11 09) - Excel spreadsheet to find CO2 emissions in briquette format. Note: The calculations for electricity are based on the generation mix in Pennsylvania (~59% fossil) and may need to be changed for other regions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The scaffolding that precedes the Project is important for the students to see their part in a bigger picture and to accept the proposition that their individual lifestyle choices are important. This was the work of ten weeks in my course. Key sources and films that were valuable to generate class discussion and develop assignments are in References and Resources.


Two aspects of the Project were part of evaluating the students:

1) Did the student complete all the project requirements?

  • log and journal
  • baseline and experimental periods
  • two or more areas of study
  • capsule summary in required format turned in electronically
  • final journal entry reflects on and analyzes accomplishments
  • daily and annual assessment of results

2) Does the journal reveal daily attention to the Project and authentic reflection on the discoveries made?

References and Resources

Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming, The illustrated guide to the findings of the IPCC by M.E. Mann & L.R. Kump (Pearson Education, 2009)

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A guide to the debate by A.E. Dessler & E.A. Parson (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we need a green revolution—and how it can renew America by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Why Bother? by Michael Pollan (The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008).

Toast, 1974, Daniel Hoffman, (available from bullfrog films; Only 12 minutes, mostly without narrative, but an exceptionally valuable illustration of hidden flows of energy (well head to consumer) and money (consumer to well head), told through a piece of toast.

Crude Impact, 2006, Vista Clara Films. I think it's the best of the "oil" films; it exposes the cultural and environmental devastation of oil extraction, the dangers of peak oil and petrodictatorships, and the connection of it all to our oil-consuming lives. A film with a hopeful message for each student, though, and that's important.

A Crude Awakening, 2006, docuramafilms. The parts that deal specifically with peak oil and oil depletion are very good.

Kilowatt Ours, 2007, Jeff Barrie. Begins with an exploration of the environmental costs of coal consumed to make electricity but the main point of the film is that ordinary people, school districts, corporations, cities, and states can play key roles in reducing electricity consumption. For my class, it helped turn the corner from "What have we done?!" to "What can we do?"

The Ecological Footprint: Accounting for a Small Planet, 2004, Global Footprint Network, with Mathis Wackernagel (available from bullfrog films;