By having her students track their own consumer behaviors, this professor drives home the global message of sustainability in a very personal way.
Associate Professor of Political Science, Northern Kentucky University
PhD, MA, and BA in Political Science
Nothing can help us understand our own behavior like holding up a mirror to it.
That is the basis for a pivotal lesson assigned by Kimberly Weir, PhD, an associate professor in the Political Science department at Northern Kentucky University, to students in her Sustainability course, which she began teaching 2 years ago.
Weir is no stranger to the subject. In 1991, after some self-reflection, she decided to inform herself about becoming a vegetarian. “There was no Internet,” she says, “so I bought a Vegetarian Times magazine and learned [about] it, and then decided it was really important.” This lifestyle change led Weir to seek more information about sustainability, find a community of like-minded individuals, and become an advocate for being a more careful consumer.
Weir believes Western societal culture and laws are set up around individualism, while Eastern philosophies focus on community and each person’s responsibilities to the group. She feels that learning about sustainability is not only positive for the planet but is also a way to ground students in their global and local connectedness.
However, Weir also knows that each of us is at our own point on this journey of life, so she meets students “where they are.” By helping them shine a light on their own behavior today, she hopes that they may make better-informed decisions in the future.
Challenge: Worldwide impact, a self-focused culture
Weir recognizes that many American students do not spend a lot of time thinking about how their individualism affects others and this planet. A class steeped in discussions of theory, she knows, is not guaranteed to change this.
“The real world is what matters,” she says. “The whole point is to get students to recognize their impact with the hope of reducing it and advocating for others to do the same.”
But getting students to engage in self-reflection or big-picture thinking is not always easy. “How do you connect students immediately to real-world situations? That was my biggest challenge in considering how to kick off my Sustainability class,” says Weir.
Innovation: Having students do case studies on their own behavior
Weir did a fair amount of research to come up with a strategy to address this challenge. This included a deep dive into sustainability as well as into the psychology of human behavior. She paid particular attention to the efficacy of keeping personal logbooks or diaries to facilitate and perpetuate behavioral change. She also reflected on her own graduate studies, in which educators assigned case-study projects to make complicated theory more relatable. “Through them, I saw how active learning can facilitate students examining their own behavior,” she explains. Weir initially developed the logging exercise to hook students into her Politics of Food course by encouraging them to examine what they put on their own plates.
These experiences converged to inspire Weir to create a logging (or tracking) assignment that puts each student at the center of their own observations. In the first week of the Sustainability class, each student is required to keep a comprehensive log of their consumer behavior. “[They] track [everything] they do that has an impact on the sustainability of the planet,” she says. This includes what they buy, how they buy it (online versus brick and mortar), how it is packaged (shipping materials, paper bag, reusable bag), and how they pay (with plastic or cash).
“I think of it as a pretest,” says Weir. “Students are usually shocked by their own behavior, and the lesson is a wake-up call.” Students use their logs as a point of reference throughout the rest of class and when writing their final papers.
Course: PSC 445 Sustainability
Frequency: One 3-hour class meeting per week for 15 weeks
Class size: 35
Course description: Covers topics to raise awareness of the connections between individuals and the greater world around them to address the consequences of capitalism, including the hazards of resource depletion, increasing amounts of waste, and environmental degradation.
In her words: “This course content has broad appeal. Many [students] are interested in learning about the world and their impact on it. This course is for anyone who’s concerned about the environment.”
PSC 445 SustainabilitySee materials
Lesson: Sustainability & You—Learning by logging
This assignment lays the groundwork for the rest of the semester, says Weir. In the course, students explore how and why people purchase more material goods than they need. They discover how American culture distances the producer from the consumer (e.g., “I don’t care how factory workers are treated if I get my clothes cheap.”) They learn where food comes from and the impact it has on humans and the environment. They discuss accumulation and “disposal” of waste (e.g., food, garbage, islands of plastic in the oceans). “For example, there’s a huge ton of credit and gift card waste,” says Weir. “Where do they think those old, used plastic cards end up?”
As the course progresses, Weir encourages students to refer to their own Sustainability & You logs to find examples in their own choices that relate to the week’s focus, whether that is food, clothing, waste, etc. By the last day of class, each student can use their consumption log as a source of inspiration for making more thoughtful choices in the future.
For other educators who want to carry out her Sustainability & You lesson, Weir suggests following these steps:
Become the textbook
“The first thing I’d say to teachers who want to teach Sustainability & You is, ‘I don’t use textbooks,’” says Weir. “I’d suggest that the teachers get educated about sustainability, so they can have a personal connection to the topic and be able to convey to students how they’re interconnected to other people, to the environment, and to the world.” By examining your own behavior, she adds, you will be better able to help students assess their own.
Sample self-assessment question
Track how many new nonfood/non-beverage items you bought this week.
- Note how the item was packaged (cellophane, cardboard).
- Note how you purchased the item (online, bought in store).
- If in a store, note how you carried it out (paper bag, plastic bag, reusable bag).
- If online, note the amount and type of packaging included in the shipment (box, bubble-wrap, paper stuffing, peanuts, etc.).
- Did you delay buying something so you didn’t have to track it?
Have students self-assess right away
Weir says the Sustainability & You self-assessment should be the first thing that happens in the semester. (She has students journal their consumer behaviors between the first and second classes.) This helps ensure that students will zero in on their habits and choices before they know anything about what the course will cover. “I tell them to not delay purchases or limit what their typical purchases are, since there’s a guilt aspect of this,” she says. “Be real. Be honest.”
Bring the logbook to life in class
As soon as students complete their log, Weir initiates an engaging and interactive discussion to bring their responses to life. “Class participation is 25% of their grade,” says Weir, “so they have an incentive to contribute.” Many are willing to talk about their logbooks anyway, since the topic is something they relate to—namely, their own habits.
Help students connect the dots
Make sure that each element that is logged by students has a tie-in to a topic being taught. Weir says, “I ask questions [during class] to connect students’ experiences to sustainability. For example, [I’ll say],‘Why did I ask you, How much meat and dairy do you consume? or How much [of your meal did you throw] away?’” This grounds the big topics in real-world, relatable, personal examples.
Take field trips
Get the students out of the classroom and into a real-world setting, such as a cutting-edge recycling center, a water treatment plant, or a shop that promotes fair trade (such as a coffee roaster/distributor dedicated to sustainable and ethical farming).
Have students reflect on their logbook
Throughout the course, have students share what they are learning. This can include having students write short reaction papers based on specific topics you have covered. Make sure to reference the Sustainability & You log when discussing each of the topics.
Evaluate lessons learned, and forecast future behavior
At the end of the semester, have the students evaluate their future consumption based on their initial log. Ask them, “Has your consumption changed? What changes will you be willing to make, knowing what you know now?”
Weir is considering bookending her course with a self-assessment at the end of the semester, as well as at the start. Instead of talking only about how they will change, a second log will show what has really changed already. As she says, “Actions speak louder than words.”
The Sustainability & You lesson is instrumental in helping the teacher assess what the students have learned throughout the semester. According to Weir, “This lesson achieves a number of learning objectives and aids in course assessment. Kolb’s  model of the experiential learning cycle offers a useful means to evaluate how a consumption log facilitates learning.”
Specifically, Weir notes that the logging of actual experience in this lesson:
- Exposes students to a new concrete experience, i.e., raising awareness of their habits by tracking them in a log.
- Requires them to reflect on their choices, through the exercise and class discussion.
- Encourages conceptualization by connecting student choices to abstract course concepts.
- Inspires the active integration of more mindful choices, with the possibility of developing new behavior patterns that are more considerate of others and the planet.
“[My students] are most often far away from the producers, but they, as individuals in Northern Kentucky, discover that they have an impact on others and the planet, and that other people have an impact on them,” says Professor Weir. “Ultimately, it’s for them to see themselves as global citizens and empowered individuals.”
Weir says that the students’ course evaluations have been uniformly positive. Furthermore, throughout the semester, students readily share not only how they have changed but also how they advocate about sustainability to their friends and family. They have told Weir how their family dinners are much more energized when they discuss what they have learned and how mindful they now are about sustainability issues like the impact of their dietary choices, food waste, and the need to reduce overall consumption.
One secondary outcome of this lesson occurs when students advocate and meet with a hostile or defensive reaction. Some students have shared with Weir that such reactions from friends and family only reinforce the student’s resolve to raise awareness around sustainability.