Research Summary

Utilizing project-based learning to increase sustainability attitudes among students

Students’ pro-environmental attitudes increased after real-client, project-based learning course

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

An informed student population is critical to achieving sustainability goals, thus many colleges and universities are adopting curricular standards regarding sustainability. Prior studies show that many college students are unaware of what sustainability means. Sustainability education typically requires active engagement with the material, and is often suited to project-based learning. Project-based learning (PBL) uses real-world skills and challenges, allowing students to understand the complexity of an issue. PBL is often most effective when it is partnered with a client or issue, but that may be logistically challenging for many professors or administrators. This study investigated whether combining project-based learning with real issues was more engaging for students and could affect students’ environmental attitudes and behavior.

This study took place at a mid-sized university in the Midwestern United States. A communications class of thirty students was broken up into teams of five. All teams worked with the client, the school’s Student Office of Sustainability, to develop a vision for the communication campaign to disseminate the mission of the office. The project involved many stages to help the students craft effective communication campaigns, including surveying the student body to understand their current views on sustainability and interviews with peers. Students also had the opportunity to present their campaigns to the Student Office of Sustainability to make the project as tangible as possible. To collect data, students in the class were surveyed before and after a 16-week experience. The questionnaire explored participants pre- and post-project perceptions of the consequences of not acting sustainably, beliefs in the ease and ability of acting sustainability, beliefs in the efficacy and outcomes of their sustainable actions, and their intentions and general attitudes towards acting sustainably. Nearly all questions posed as agreement or disagreement; agreement indicated pro-sustainability attitudes and beliefs. Data were analyzed to compare pre- and post-project results to see if students’ environmental attitudes changed over the course of the experience.

The study showed that participants’ pro-environmental attitudes increased as a result of the PBL experience. Students already had high pro-environmental attitudes before the study, but agreement with pro-sustainability attitudes and beliefs got even higher after the course. After completing the project, students saw sustainable actions as even more important, alongside better understanding of the risks of not acting sustainably. After participating in the project, the results indicated that students perceived acting sustainably as more attainable and accessible. In addition, respondents knew that their actions could have large impacts. Students’ behavioral intentions of acting sustainably also rose, indicating that they likely would choose to act sustainably in the future.

The authors acknowledge that this study was limited in that it only looked at one class at a single institution of higher education. It may not be possible to generalize the results of this study to other classrooms or education levels.

The researchers recommend using experiential PBL to help students gain knowledge and skills about sustainability. The study’s findings indicate that PBL teaches skills in a complex, nuanced subject and has the capacity to change environmental attitudes. The researchers note that assessments should be modified for project-based courses to include attitudinal shifts and problem-solving skills.

The Bottom Line

The researchers examined how a real-world, client project-based undergraduate course can influence students’ attitudes about sustainability. Students in a communications course worked with their university’s sustainability office to create a communications campaign. After the course, the results showed that participants had higher pro-environmental attitudes, and better understood the importance of choosing a sustainable lifestyle. The researchers recommend using project-based learning when teaching real-world sustainability issues in the classroom. Similar to the project in the study, the researchers also recommend working with clients, either outside the university or internal university departments. They also suggest that assessment of knowledge is not the only way to test gains, but rather it is important to look at attitudinal shifts as another metric for success.