Survey Seeks Students' Sustainability Interest, Knowledge

Oct. 30, 2019
What does sustainability mean to you? Do you understand it? Champion it? Live it?  An ongoing survey of Ohio State undergraduates — which begins again via email this week — aims to find students’ answers to these questions.

What does sustainability mean to you? Do you understand it? Champion it? Live it?

An ongoing survey of Ohio State undergraduates — which begins again via email this week — aims to find students’ answers to these questions. The survey shows researchers and university sustainability leaders how students’ knowledge, attitudes and actions regarding sustainability change over time.

The results of the survey, which has been administered at various times since 2012, are used in campus sustainability planning and curriculum; research regarding policy preferences and consumer choices; benchmark comparisons for other universities; and other purposes, as well as the longitudinal tracking of sustainability-related knowledge and behaviors.

“We encourage students to take the time to complete the survey,” says Kristina Slagle, manager of Ohio State’s Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which oversees the survey. “If they took it in previous years, it would be wonderful if they would take it again, so we can follow people as they progress through their time here at Ohio State.

The lab will send the survey via random email to 20,000 students. The questions also are randomized, so students may not see the same questions as their peers. Students who complete the survey will be entered in a raffle to win $50 Target gift cards.

“This longitudinal work is important because things change over time. If you only get one look at the population, you don’t know what other forces might be impacting the responses given changes in society over time,” Slagle says. “For example in 2012 and 2014, we were looking at millennials. Now we’re looking at the next generation. Once complete, we will have two snapshots of different generations.”

Looking at the data over time also gives researchers the opportunity to look at other differences across groups of students, says Nicole Sintov, assistant professor of behavior, decision-making and sustainability in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab steering committee member.

“For instance, say some subset of the incoming 2012 cohort took the survey a number of times, allowing us to see that their pro-environmental attitudes increased from their freshman to senior year,” says Sintov, who is a core faculty member of Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute. “We can look at the same differences among the incoming 2019 cohort — we may or may not see the same results.”

The survey is a campuswide collaborative effort. Partners include the Sustainability Institute; the Office of Student Life; and Facilities Operations and Development.

“We’re trying to learn where the university’s sustainability programming is helping students learn and practice their sustainability ambitions and where the university could be doing better in delivering that programming and engaging students,” says Mike Shelton, associate director of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State.

Last year, the university’s Sustainability Education and Learning Committee used the survey results for recommendations on existing and potential sustainability-related curriculum, says Gina Hnytka, the institute’s director of sustainability education and learning.

“This is one direct way we receive feedback on the types of sustainability academic courses and programs, co-curricular experiences and other engagement opportunities students would like to see us develop,” Hnytka explains.

One interesting finding from last year’s survey is that, while students are engaged with recycling efforts on campus, they still have some common misconceptions as to what can be recycled on campus. 

“This finding confirmed what we’ve always suspected,” says Tom Reeves, director of Energy Management and Sustainability for the Office of Student Life.  “Students want to recycle, but since they don’t know what is recyclable, it sometimes creates contamination in our waste stream or recyclables ending up in the landfill. This apparent lack of knowledge has led to different research studies that will help us even more when designing our educational campaigns.”

Faculty also use the survey to obtain information for research purposes. For example, Jeff Bielicki, associate professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and public affairs, is assessing student perceptions of the integration of food, energy and water in sustainable planning and policy. Bielicki, who is a faculty co-leader for the Sustainability Institute’s sustainability energy research program area, will compare those perceptions with people involved at high levels in those topics throughout the Great Lakes Region. In addition, Atar Herziger, a post-doctoral researcher with environment and natural resources and the Sustainability Institute, will use survey results for her research on consumption decisions.

“When different people make consumption-related decisions, they prioritize different values and goals. For example, some may be motivated by frugality, others by product quality and some by a lifestyle they’d like to lead. Still others might prioritize social and environmental sustainability,” Herziger says. “Our study examines how people with different values and goals make consumption decisions, and how they balance their own well-being with the well-being of others.”

The survey results will be made available to the university community next summer; anyone interested should contact the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab.

The 2018 survey found that student engagement in pro-environmental behaviors has increased by almost 30% since the last major data collection in 2014, while knowledge of sustainability-related topics increased by 10%. See the survey executive summary or full report on the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab website.

About the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab
Faculty and students at the Environmental and Social Sustainability Lab are working to build scientific knowledge of environmental and social sustainability through interdisciplinary research that includes theory and methods from behavioral and decision sciences: sociology, psychology, communication, economics and political science. Students interested in research and learning opportunities with the lab should send a message to

This news item was originally published on the Sustainability Institute website.