Teaching Notes for the Lifestyle Project

Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2007

Introduce the project in a way that provides motivation

A crate of locally-grown peaches at a farmer's market.
A crate of locally-grown peaches at a farmer's market. USDA Photo by Bill Tarpenning.
The lifestyle project is challenging in an unexpected way for many students. Because the project asks them to make changes to their personal lives, students must be in a frame of mind to want to experiment and try something completely new!

The ideal groundwork for the lifestyle project accomplishes the following goals:
  • introduces the topics (energy use, water use, waste production, food production),
  • illuminates the concept that for most Americans, we could be considerably more conscientious about our resource use,
  • establishes a mood in the classroom wherein students get excited about taking on a challenge.

Some scenarios:

  • Have a classroom or lab discussion using a town-meeting format. The topic is that your town is seeking to solve an energy shortage. Several possible types of energy sources will be discussed, along with the pros and cons of each. It becomes evident that there are serious drawbacks to every type of energy use. Almost inevitably, a student will come up with the idea of conserving energy in order to solve the shortage, rather than building a new power plant. From there you can challenge the class if they think they could save enough energy, collectively, to solve this hypothetical problem. This exercise has been very successful. It usually takes a full class period.
  • Give a campus-based quiz to asses students' environmental habits (this would need to be modified for your own campus)
  • Take a web-based "footprint quiz " that provides a generalized calculation of the environmental impact of a student's lifestyle. One example is the ecological footprint quiz ( This site may be offline. )
Any of these exercises can be used to get students thinking about how their own actions directly impact the environment, and introduce some of the fundamentals of conservation.

Offer an alternate assignment

A bus fueled by liquid natural gas in Dallas, TX
A bus in Dallas, TX runs on liquid natural gas. Photo by Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

The lifestyle project is not for everyone. Students should not be forced into changing their personal habits, but rather they should be given the option and encouraged to do so. When you offer the lifestyle project, it is important to also offer a traditional assignment on a related topic so that students who are not interested or incapable of doing the project have a more comfortable alternative.

Here is an example of alternative assignment:

Have the student play the role of a consultant to a community, corporation, campus or local government. The consultant's job is to find ways to reduce energy use, water use, garbage output, or food inefficiencies (i.e. the same categories as the project) on a scale appropriate for a small community, campus or corporation. The topic should be limited to only a few of the project categories, rather than all five, so that there is room for some depth in their research and writing. Acting as a consultant, the student should develop a conservation and waste reduction strategy, a concrete outline, and supporting evidence of where a similar plan has worked before. Students are encouraged to add their own ideas, but the paper should be based on research and strategies that have worked in actual communities.

Maintain motivation throughout the project

This project is most successful with frequent input from the instructor all the way through the three weeks. Some of the problems that come up include:
  • The project may seem too challenging and students may feel like it is impossible to do.
  • Students may be able to conserve a little bit, but won't truly inconvenience themselves or break their routines.
  • Students may have misconceptions about energy use (i.e. using batteries does not magically require no energy; with a thermostat you do not need to turn the heat up on a cold day) which cause them to get off on the wrong track and prevent effective conservation.
  • Students may run out of ideas for how to further reduce their consumption.
In each of these cases, spending a little time in class can help alleviate these problems.
  • You can motivate students by your own example or by providing ideas about easy ways to save energy.
  • Give a "show and tell" of project ideas, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, refillable milk containers, soap that has no wrapper (Sappo Hill), a notepad made out of junk mail, fabric grocery bags, and so on.
  • Explain the recycling rules in your area so everyone knows what is recyclable and what isn't. You could also give a fun recycling quiz.
  • Provide ideas for how to take the project further, such as shopping at a local co-op or farmer's market.
  • Set up a forum for students to post their best conservation tips (web site, discussion board, posters in the hallway)
  • Reward great ideas or heroic efforts with eco-friendly treats, like a cloth grocery bag, a compact fluorescent light bulb, and so on.

In addition to spending a few minutes in class going over these ideas, be sure to reinforce them in your responses to student journals.

Do the project yourself!

Purchasing fresh produce at the grocery store
USDA photo by Ken Hammond
There is no better way to understand this project and to bond with your class than to do the lifestyle project yourself. Even if you already live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, you will still learn a thing or two by following the more rigid parameters required by the project. More importantly, this will give you a solid foundation from which to read and reply to the students' journals, and to provide the class with motivation. Students will not hold a grudge against you and your demands on their lifestyles if you are taking the very same steps as they are. The phrase "teach by example" applies perfectly in this case.

You can share your experiences in your lifestyle project by talking to the class, by writing a bit about your experiences in student journals, or by posting your own journal on the course website.

Using the Lifestyle Project in a distance learning setting

The lifestyle project is well-suited for use in a distance learning class for a variety of reasons.
  • Distance learning students are generally more mature and may have their own households. Therefore, the idea of energy conservation can be more easily adapted to their households, rather than just a dorm room.
  • The students are more likely to have families, and the project takes on a new dimension when students are able to involve their families.
  • Students in a distance learning environment often do not feel connected to their classmates or instructors. This project is very effective in bringing the class together with a shared experience.
  • Many distance learning courses feature a discussion area, which is an ideal way for students to share their ideas and questions about the project.

Adaptations for distance learning
  • As with any learning environment, it is important to introduce the project in a way that opens the door and puts the students in the mood to take on the personal challenge of the project. Because it may be harder to get to know your students in an on-line environment, it is critical that you provide some questions or activities to gauge student response and to let the students warm up to the idea of the project. One suggestion for introducing students to the project is the ecological footprint quiz ( This site may be offline. ) , a simple, interactive, web-based questionnaire that measures one's ecological footprint.
  • Learning activities leading up to the project should address the same or similar environmental topics that the project does, so that students have an understanding of their personal impacts. For example, what is the relationship between personal energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and global warming?
  • The rules of the project are complicated and students may not absorb all the nuances of the categories and restrictions simply by reading through the handout. Set up a a list of frequently asked questions or a bulletin board where you can address student questions . Be proactive by posting the answers to common questions or reiterating some of the rules.
  • In addition to answering questions, it is useful to provide a forum for students' to share their experiences and insights as the project progresses. For example, a student who is tired of eating macaroni and cheese may be looking for ideas for vegetarian meals. Others may be able to describe new energy-saving tricks they have learned.
  • Provide quick turnaround for student questions and for reading their journals. Your responses can clarify questions or provide encouraging feedback and can greatly influence their progress.
  • Although the lifestyle project is appropriate for a culminating experience, consider using it midway in a course. The experience of the project will let you and the students get to know each other, and will pull the class together as a team.