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Call for Papers:  Special Issue of the Journal of Sustainability Education: “Educating for Water Resilience in the Context of Climate Crisis”

To coincide with United Nations World Water Day: March 22, 2020


PDF: JSE Call for Papers-March 2020 Special Issue-Water & Climate Crisis

“We are now on the verge of water bankruptcy in many places around the world with no clear way of repaying the debt.” 

(World Economic Forum Water Initiative, 2011, pp. 1-2)

Humanity’s relationship with water is inextricably linked to the sustainability of life of Earth.  Our ability to sustainably interact with the water cycle at all scales—from global to local—is a clear prerequisite for mapping a long-term sustainable future, one that includes food security, human health, peace between water-sharing regions, sustainable economies, healthy ecosystems, sustained biodiversity, and social justice. 

Today, water security has never before been so threatened by anthropogenic actions, and the resulting water insecurity is often framed as a “wicked problem.” Driven by a burgeoning global population, global water demand is anticipated to increase by 55% by 2050 (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme [UN WWAP], 2015), and the global water deficit is projected to reach 40% by as soon as 2030 (UN WWAP, 2016).  Water-based ecosystems—on which we rely for source water protection, safeguarding from extreme weather events, and the preservation of biodiversity—are suffering.  Today, an estimated two-thirds of water-cycle-regulating forests worldwide are degraded, approximately 70% of natural wetlands have been lost since 1900, and water pollution has increased in most African, Asian, and Latin American rivers since the 1990s (UN WWAP, 2018).  

Water insecurity presents significant human rights and social justice concerns. While the Human Right to Water was adopted by the United Nations as binding international law nearly a decade ago, today more than 2 billion people—about 30% of the global population—still do not have their right to water fully realized (World Health Organization, 2017).  This water injustice reality disproportionately impacts marginalized individuals and communities, including the world’s 370-500 million Indigenous Peoples (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2019).  This lack of access to clean water is felt near and far, in both urban and rural settings, and in both developing and developed nations. It is estimated, for instance, that approximately 2.5 million people in the United States still lack access to safe drinking water (as cited by Venkataraman, 2017, p. 14), a reality jarringly thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 Flint, Michigan, water crisis when lead-contaminated drinking water distributed by the city caused urgent health problems (City of Flint, 2016).  

Threats to water security are further—and severely in many local contexts—exacerbated by the impacts of the unfolding anthropogenic climate crisis.  The consequences of climate change are experienced by humans predominantly through their interactions with the water cycle (UN-Water, 2013).  Climate intensification is projected to bring increasing volatility and variability to the water cycle in a highly regionalized context, leading to concerns for food security, climate refugee migration, transboundary conflict, and myriad other societal realities.  Climate change-related impacts to the hydrologic cycle, including fluctuations to rainfall patterns, river flow, and groundwater recharge rates, are impacting the availability of freshwater for communities around the globe (Cooley, 2012). And, as underscored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change feedbacks at the global scale are experienced in highly regionalized contexts, leading to more severe flooding in some regions and more severe droughts in others (IPCC, 2008).  

Given these realities, the need for water action has emerged as a leading priority on the global policy and sustainable development stage, as signified by the 2015 inclusion of a stand-alone United Nations Sustainable Development Goal—SDG 6—specifically related to water.  It is recognized that water security sits at the nexus of many different societal needs and will require interdisciplinary approaches to address, particularly in the context of climate change.

On March 22, 2020, the United Nations will mark World Water Day by focusing on the relationship between water and climate change.  The Journal of Sustainability Education is pleased to be planning a March 2020 special issue, “Educating for Water Resilience in the Context of Climate Crisis,” to mark the occasion.

The editors of this special issue seek submissions, including a wide range of academic literature, personal essays, media/book reviews, editorial pieces, photo essays, poetry, and other publishable works, that address the questions below among other related topics.  The editors ask these questions in an effort to stimulate research, reflection, theory development, and discussion of praxis, the intersection of theory and action. 

  1. How do we teach sustainable water resilience strategies in the context of climate crisis?  This question applies not only to the classroom setting, but also to the process of educating the public at large, policymakers, corporate leaders, elected officials, consumers, and other stakeholders.
  2. What new frameworks are emerging for successful education, advocacy, and/or communication for sustainable water resilience?  
  3. Through the presentation of case studies or other article formats, what specific education activities have been proven effective—or not? These ideas may include, but are in no way are limited to, engagement in calculating virtual water footprints, place-based (watershed) education, gaming/simulation exercises related to water conservation or water conflict management, etc.
  1. What is the current status of water literacy in the context of climate instability among various audiences, including classroom students, educators, the public, policymakers, elected officials, etc.? What strategies are being implemented to increase this level of water literacy and any potential action and/or activism that follows on the path toward water resilience?  
  2. How are Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities experiencing and addressing water insecurity at local and regional scales, and what education strategies are being implemented to increase water resilience in the context of climate crisis?  How is Indigenous and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) being implemented to address and/or teach sustainable water resilience strategies?
  3. What role do youth and climate crisis activists play in also advocating for sustainable water resilience? 
  4. What education strategies are being employed to increase marginalized communities’ advocacy and/or demand for the realization of the Human Right to Water?  
  5. How does sustainability education work to increase understanding of the links between water resilience and the future of biodiversity, specifically as both are threatened by climate change?  
  6. How are communities with the potential of conflict over water—such as upstream and downstream communities within transboundary waterways or communities that share a scarce water resource—employing sustainability education strategies to work toward cooperation and peace related to water rather than engaging in prolonged conflict? Some examples may include Participatory 3D Mapping and/or the creation of shared water governance groups.  Case studies may be a particularly useful way to submit a response to this question.
  7. What is the potential for grassroots water governance structures, such as watershed councils, to serve as sources of sustainable water resilience education to the community at large and other audiences?
  8. What are effective strategies to educate voters, policymakers, infrastructure planners/investors, and elected leaders on the value of nature-based solutions, such as green and natural infrastructure, for water-cycle sustainability in both urban and rural settings?  These strategies may include, but are not limited to, the protection of source water-protecting upstream forests, the implementation of urban green infrastructure (bioswales, green roofs, constructed wetlands, and other green stormwater infrastructure), the uptake of conservation agriculture that reduces chemical and sediment runoff, and other nature-based strategies.  How might sustainability education strategies play a role in facilitating discussions between proponents of traditional grey infrastructure and those who are working to increase implementation of green infrastructure? 
  1. How do various communities, jurisdictions, and peoples value water differently, and how does sustainability education play a role in decision-making based upon differing valuation models? Some nations, for instance, have granted rivers human legal rights, allowing rivers to achieve legal standing in court to protect themselves.  Some models value water instrumentally, while others value it intrinsically.  Many cultures value water for its sacred, spiritual, or cultural significance.  Some environmental economics models assign dollar values to calculate waters’ value using an ecosystem services framework.   How do these different ways of valuing water influence our collective ability to move toward water resilience in the context of climate crisis, and what role does sustainability education play in facilitating those conversations?
  2. What is sustainability education’s role in water-related climate adaptation?  For instance, what are some of the most effective strategies in place to engage the public and other audiences in contemplation and action related to rising sea levels, intensifying floods and droughts, and intensifying fires?

Submission deadline: November 1, 2019

Anticipated journal acceptance responses back to submitting authors: January 15. 2020

Submission details:  If you are interested in submitting work for this issue, please visit the Journal of Sustainability Education website (www.susted.com) and register as an author.  To do so, look for the “RATS” (Review and Article Tracking and Submission) system link at the top of the home page.  

Style requirements: Please ensure submissions comply with APA style as well as the Journal of Sustainability Education’s specific style and submission guidelines.

Seeking Peer Reviewers: The Journal of Sustainability Education also seeks potential peer reviewers who have a background in water resilience and/or climate change/crisis education, advocacy, policy, or related fields of expertise. If you believe you are qualified and are interested in becoming a peer reviewer, a role that typically requires a terminal degree in a related field, please contact us at editor@susted.com using “Water Issue Peer Reviewer Interest” in the email subject line.

We look forward to exploring this impactful topic with the special issue “Educating for Water Resilience in the Context of Climate Instability” in March 2020.  For further information, please contact the issue editors, using “JSE Special Water Issue” in the subject line of your message.

Amanda Bielawski, Special Issue Guest Editor

& Clare Hintz, Editor-in-Chief

Journal of Sustainability Education



About the Journal of Sustainability Education: The Journal of Sustainability Education (JSE) serves as a forum for academics and practitioners to share, critique, and promote research, practices, and initiatives that foster the integration of economic, ecological, and social-cultural dimensions of sustainability within formal and non-formal educational contexts.  JSE is a peer-reviewed, open access trans- and interdisciplinary e-journal that publishes three editions a year: two themed issues and one general issue.  Issues include research and practice feature articles, professional and news reports of projects and initiatives, opinion pieces, announcements of educational and research opportunities, and book and other media reviews. JSE is housed by Prescott College’s Ph.D. Program in Sustainability Education.

About the Special Issue Guest Editor: Amanda Bielawski is a conservation and sustainable development policy/communications consultant and researcher with a specific focus on global water security, environmental justice, climate, and biodiversity.  Bielawski’s recent research emanating from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Programme on Nature for Development analyzed how 50 communities across 26 developing nations implemented nature-based solutions for water security, often based upon Indigenous and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.  Bielawski holds an MS in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environmental Policy, Law, and Communications; an MBA; and international credentials related to global water policy and environmental conflict and peace building.  Bielawski’s mid-career doctoral research focuses on pathways to increase uptake of long-term nature-based strategies for water security, with a specific focus on water security in indigenous communities.  Bielawski serves as Senior Editor of the JSE, and Guest Editor of this Special Issue. 


City of Flint. (2016). State of emergency declared in the City of Flint. Retrieved from: https://www.cityofflint.com/state-of-emergency/.

Cooley, H. (2012). Water and climate. In J. Christian-Smith & P. Gleick (Eds.), A twenty-first century U.S. water policy (pp. 142-166). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2008). Climate change and water. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC Secretariat. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/publication/climate-change-and-water-2/.

UN-Water. (2013). Water security & the global water agenda: A UN-Water analytical brief. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Author. Retrieved from: http://www.unwater.org/publications/water-security-global-water-agenda/.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2019. Indigenous peoples. Retrieved from: https://en.unesco.org/indigenous-peoples.

United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (UN WWAP). (2015). United Nations World Water Development Report 2056: Water for a sustainable world. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2015-water-for-a-sustainable-world/.

United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (UN WWAP). (2016). United Nations World Water Development Report 2016: Water and jobs. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2016-water-and-jobs/.

United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (UN WWAP). (2018). United Nations World Water Development Report 2018: Natured-based solutions. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2018-nature-based-solutions/.

Venkataraman, B. (2017). The paradox of water and the Flint crisis. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 60 (1), 4-17. 

World Economic Forum Water Initiative. (2011). Water security: The water-food-energy-climate nexus. Washington, DC: Island Press.

World Health Organization (WHO). (2017).  2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, more than twice as many lack safe sanitation. Retrieved from:  https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/12-07-2017-2-1-billion-people-lack-safe-drinking-water-at-home-more-than-twice-as-many-lack-safe-sanitation.

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Call for Papers: 

Special Issue of the Journal of Sustainability Education:

Ecomedia Literacy: Bridging media, technology, youth media, 

and arts education with education for sustainability


PDF: JSE Call for Papers-May 2020 Special Issue Ecomedia Literacy

Historically there has been a divide between practitioners of media education and environmental education. The causes vary, but can be traced to the legacy of how media studies has neglected to examine the environmental consequences of information and communication technology (ICT), and a historical distrust of technology and media among environmentalists. In recent years emerging fields are bridging this gap, including ecomedia studies, environmental humanities, environmental communication, green cultural studies, ecocinema studies, postcolonial ecocriticism, and ecocriticism. We now have an opportunity to bring sustainability educators into the conversation by exploring mutual interests and crossover between media and sustainability educators. This special issue intends to open up this discussion with innovative and cross-disciplinary scholarship and case studies.

We seek academic literature, personal essays, media, and other publishable works that address these and other questions:

  • What should students learn to promote a healthy media ecosystem?
  • How can sustainability educators harness media making tools and the arts?
  • What is the media’s phenomenological influence on the perception of time, space, place and cognition?
  • What are the pedagogical functions of media, media activism or technology?
  • How can key themes (such as food, commons, climate crisis) in sustainability education be incorporated into media and/or arts education?
  • How can language arts connect with sustainability education?

Some keywords and topics for this special issue: ecological thinking across the curriculum; ecomedia literacy; media and/as the environment; media as education; digital vs. “natural” environments; sustainability and self care; sustainability and community stewardship through arts, media and storytelling; sustainability and that arts; youth media; community media; citizen journalism; fake news, news literacy and climate crisis; intersection between food and media; slow media; mapping as pedagogy; pipeline activism as pedagogy; decolonizing media literacy; green cultural citizenship; the commons; visual culture; consumption and sustainability; representation of nature in marketing; evaluating the ecological claims of products and corporations (green washing); health and the environment; animals in the media; alternative media and artist responses to environmental issues; visual communication methods.

The editors of this special issue ask these questions and explore these key words in an effort to stimulate research, reflection, theory development, and discussion of praxis. We also seek relevant book and media reviews, editorial pieces, photo essays, multimedia pieces, case studies, and reflections on learning and practice.



If you are interested in submitting work for this issue, please visit the JSE website (www.susted.org), and register as an author using the RATS (review and article tracking and submission) system (follow the link to RATS at the top of the JSE home page). RATS also includes links to the JSE submission guidelines (select “submit” from the RATS interface). For further information, please contact the issue editors. Please use “JSE Ecomedia Literacy Issue inquiry” in the subject line of your message.

The JSE also seeks peer reviewers. You are encouraged to use the RATS system to participate in our peer review process.

Antonio Lopez, Ph.D., Guest Editor, alopez@johncabot.edu

Theresa Redmond, Ed.D,  Guest Editor, redmondta@appstate.edu

Clare Hintz, Ph.D., Editor, editor@susted.com

Categories for Authors:

Scholarly Feature Articles: Longer, peer-reviewed articles between 3,000 and 7,500 words in three categories: (1) Original Research, (2) Theoretical/Conceptual Articles, and (3) Program/Practice Features.

Reports and Briefings: Report preliminary findings, phenomenological studies, case studies, insights, etc. between 500-3,000 words and have fewer than 10 references.

Editorials/Opinions: These 500-3,000 word essays offer commentary on current events related to sustainability education, issues in sustainability, or recent articles in this journal.

Book and Media Reviews: Reviews are between 500 and 3,000 words that focus on how the book, film, or other media contributes to sustainability education.

Case Studies:  Descriptions of courses, programs or experiences with students with enough detail to visualize how the experience or course was done, but leave enough of an open framework to allow the reader to envision using and adapting the experience or course.

Photo Essays and Images of Sustainability Education: Digital photographs or other media with 100 word maximum captions help demonstrate a more holistic view of sustainability education and engage a broad audience.

Sustainability Journeys:  These are personal stories about some poignant aspect of the author’s journey to be, or to be part of , sustainability education.

Author Guidelines:


Style requirements: Please ensure submissions comply with APA style as well as the Journal of Sustainability Education’s specific style and submission guidelines.

About the Journal of Sustainability Education: The Journal of Sustainability Education (JSE) serves as a forum for academics and practitioners to share, critique, and promote research, practices, and initiatives that foster the integration of economic, ecological, and social-cultural dimensions of sustainability within formal and non-formal educational contexts.  JSE is a peer-reviewed, open access trans- and interdisciplinary e-journal that publishes three editions a year: two themed issues and one general issue.  Issues include research and practice feature articles, professional and news reports of projects and initiatives, opinion pieces, announcements of educational and research opportunities, and book and other media reviews. JSE is housed by Prescott College’s Ph.D. Program in Sustainability Education.

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Askea JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

JSE April 2019 General Issue Table of Contents

Abstract:  The purpose of this article is to provide key aspects and learning outcomes associated with the Math of the Mountains Project.  Math of the Mountains was a year long grant project that engaged 60 K12 mathematics teachers in the key concepts and applications of place-based learning and mathematics instruction.  Through online coursework and peer support, a four-day immersive field experience, and teacher led field experiences, participants applied elements of PBL to create lesson activities that support real-world learning and problem solving scenarios.   

Keywords: Place-based learning, real-world learning, problem solving, professional development, outdoor education, sense of place



One of the most dreaded questions that any teacher of mathematics will receive at some point is “When will I use this?”  It is in that pivotal moment that teachers must sell the concepts of mathematics like the best car salesperson in the world.  We scramble to make histograms or quadratic equations seem like concepts for everyday adult life.  Yet, Galileo (1623) wrote “[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.” Tegmark (2014) also echoes this idea by writing “There’s something very mathematical about our Universe, and that the more carefully we look, the more math we seem to find.”  With a universe filled with mathematical concepts and formulas, why do teachers find it so difficult to answer that dreaded question?  Traditional learning models of mathematics instruction focus on learning a concept then applying the concept in a simulation of “real world” context.  Boaler (1993) surmised mathematical performance is clearly inconsistent across what may be termed as ‘school’ and ‘everyday’ situations suggesting that it is the environment in which mathematics takes place, not the problem to which it is applied, which determines the selection of mathematical procedure.  If this assumption is true, then many of the transfer strategies long used in mathematics instruction are not as effective to help students make lasting “real world” connections and understandings as previously thought.  Instead of asking students to apply math concepts they learn to carefully worded problems, what if students learned the mathematics of a place?  

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This general issue of The Journal of Sustainability Education provides a wide range of articles related to student perspectives of sustainability as well as pedagogical frameworks for teaching it—with a focus on higher education.

Four full articles explore various aspects of college and university students’ more-personal sustainability awareness, empowerment, and identity.  In “Sulitest®: A Mixed-Method, Pilot Study of Assessment Impacts on Undergraduate Sustainability-Related Learning and Motivation,” Mason (2019) finds that the Sustainability Literacy Test (also known as the Sulitest®), created through a United Nations collaboration, can both assess undergraduate students’ sustainability literacy and heighten students’ interest in topics of sustainability.  In “Taking Sustainability Personally: The Impact of Teaching Sustainability Agency on Learning,” Papania (2019) explores how an experiential, action-research and transformational pedagogical approach that encourages students to contemplate sustainability on a personal basis, including having students track their own personal resource consumption and create Personal Impact Assessments, can have a transformative, empowering impact on graduate business students’ sustainability outlooks.  In “The Relationship Between University Students’ Environmental Identity, Decision-Making Process, and Behavior,” Freed and Wong (2019) investigate the role of students’ environmental identity as a factor in their outward expressions of sustainability.  And, in “Writing Makes it Easier to Relate to the Environment,” Rioux (2019) discusses the value of a 16-week Environmental Literature and Writing course in influencing undergraduate students’ understanding of their relationship with the environment.

Two additional articles advance new frameworks for addressing sustainability pedagogy and curricula in higher education.  In “Interacting Pedagogies: A Review and Framework for Sustainability Education,” Papenfuss, Merritt, Manuel-Navarrete, Cloutier, and Eckard (2019) propose an Interacting Pedagogy Framework, which illustrates the connections and interactions between transmissive, transformative, instrumental, and emancipatory pedagogies for sustainability education.  Further, the authors discuss one of the framework’s goals of “rebel[ing] against outdated curricula,” and describe the framework as a “rebel’s compass that points toward the development of pedagogies for sustainability education,” noting that a new approach is needed to “build momentum toward a fourth wave of sustainability education.”  And, in “Using Sustainability as a Framework for Marketing Curricula and Pedagogy,” Upadhyaya, Hughes, and Houston (2019) discuss the need to broaden and reframe sustainability teaching within higher education marketing courses, and provide a framework to “foster a new generation of marketing practitioners who embrace, internalize, and practice sustainability holistically.”

Outside of the brick-and-mortar classroom, additional articles explore the value of Place-Based Learning (PBL) in sustainability education efforts.  In “A Pedagogical Framework for the Design and Utilization of Place-Based Experiential Learning Curriculum on a Campus Farm,” Angstmann, Rollings, Fore, and Sorge (2019) propose a Place-Based Experiential Learning (PBEL) pedagogical framework for engaging undergraduate students in learning on often-underutilized campus farms.   And, in “The Development of Citizen Educators at a Remote Graduate Science Education Program,” Harbour (2019) provides a case study spanning three years of data collection, exploring the impacts of a year-long wilderness-based residential experience for graduate science-education students.

Moving from higher education into the K-12 realm, in “Finding the Math in the Mountains: Place-Based Learning in the Mountains of Southwest Virginia,” Askea (2019) explores the experiences of K-12 mathematics teachers, including a four-day field experience, diving into PBL to harness the power of real-world problem solving.

This issue also shares inspiring and tangibly useful content related to arts-based community events that encourage sustainability-based thinking; school gardening in vocational high schools, and how millennials make decisions about the purchase of sustainable apparel.

We hope you enjoy this issue of The Journal of Sustainability Education, and encourage you to reach out to the editorial team at editor@susted.com to propose a future issue theme or article idea.

Amanda Bielawski

Editor, The Journal for Sustainability Education

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Rademacher JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

April 2019 General Issue Table of Contents

Abstract: The impact of school gardening on nutritional attitudes and behavior regarding purchase and consumption of food is explored with pupils who participated in school gardens. The researchers of the recent study conceptualized a framework of potential factors influencing nutritional behavior based on empirical data with pupils from general and vocational high schools in Vienna. Three hundred and sixteen pupils, aged between 16 to 21, were interviewed in a cross-sectional study. The pupils who participated in school gardening are significantly better informed about sustainability than the pupils who did not. There is a significant difference between pupils who took part in school gardening and those who did not, regarding their self-assessment towards their connection to nature and sustainability. The total consumption of vegetables has increased within the families of participating pupils by 17%. School gardening seems to promote pupils’ reflection on their own diet as well as foster a favorable attitude towards a healthy and sustainable diet. We conclude that the implementation of school gardening has a significant positive impact on pupils’ attitude and behavior towards sustainable diets.

Keywords: School gardening, quantitative method, nutritional attitudes and behavior, general and vocational high school pupils, Vienna


According to a 2012 EU census, 21% of the Austrian population lived in urban and 32% in intermediate areas (BMLFUW, 2014). However it has to be considered that the rural area of Austria is diverse, and that there are many rural areas with strong relations to urban centers (Dax, Favry, Fidlschuster, Oedl-Wieser, & Pfefferkorn, 2008). In Austria, relocation of families from rural landscapes to large cities was observed, resulting in a 11% increase in urbanization between 2001 and 2011 (Statistics-Austria, 2013). 

The average amount of farmland per farm increased in Austria from 9.6 ha in 1951 to 18.7 ha in 2013 (BMLFUW, 2015). In 1951, 1.624.034 people worked in the Austrian farming sector, whereas by 2013 this number was reduced to 414.410 (Statistics-Austria, 2014). Austrian consumers purchase the vast majority of their food in supermarkets or discount stores. In 2009, only 12% of food was sold using various forms of direct agricultural marketing (AMA, 2009). These developments led to a situation where fewer people had direct experiences with food production and farming. 

Because of the long supply chains from farmer to consumer, pupils sometimes have no understanding of their food with regard to where and how it is grown and produced (Clugston & Calder, 2007). Furthermore, in many cities, pupils have limited exposure to wild spaces or food production landscapes. Most of the time, they spend their days in school buildings and eat snacks or meals composed of highly processed foods. Adolescents who grow up in urban cities or landscapes have little relation to nature and agricultural production of food (Kingery-Page, Hunt, & Teener; Pierce, 2012). 

It is time to accommodate new strategies of human nutrition, based on food from low input, local, seasonal and agroecological production (Lairon, 2012). In international school education, there is a growing international attention on ecological and societal aspects of food systems. There is a clear concern that humans need to learn to develop healthy and sustainable methods of nutrition for the present as well as the future (BMBF, 2013; Larson, Story, Eisenberg, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2006). From that perspective, it is time to rethink school curricula to accommodate new strategies of human nutrition, based on food from low input, local, seasonal and agroecological production. One of these strategies is the implementation of school gardens.

The objective of school gardening is to teach pupils about the origins and production of food, and for this, there is a need for environmental education (Mukoni, 2013). The process of teaching pupils where their food is grown and produced is characterized by environmental pedagogical strategies like experiential learning (Parmer, 2006). Holistically, experiential learning involves combining pupils’ experience, awareness, cognition and behavior to engage them in ecological issues (Dunkley, 2016). Pupils therefore learn to change their own diet, which means that they can shape their own nutrition pattern in a more ecological and sustainable way. 

On the foundation of the work of Verstraeten et al. (2014), the researchers of the present study conceptualize a framework of potential factors influencing nutritional behavior in Viennese pupils (Figure 1). In the context of school gardening, schools can influence the pupils’ nutritional attitudes and behavior, as well as sociocultural conditions such as families’ values and rules. Individual factors such as subjective norms, attitudes or behavioral intentions are the driving forces to influence pupils’ nutritional behavior (Hackman & Knowlden, 2014). Further influencing factors on nutritional behavior include sociodemographic characteristics like pupils’ age, habitat and level of education (De Bruijn et al., 2007; K. Harris & Mullan, 2009; Vermeir & Verbeke, 2008).


Figure 1: Conceptual framework of potential factors influencing nutritional behavior in Viennese pupils modified according to Verstraeten et al. (2014).

There are many publications in which the influence of school gardening on pupils’ nutritional attitudes and behavior are analyzed. Quantitative methods with a pre- and post-test design were used in the research on pupils’ attitudes and behavior (Baldivia et al., 2014; Gatto, Ventura, Cook, Gyllenhammer, & Davis, 2012; Jones et al., 2012; Pierce, 2012; Ratcliffe, Merrigan, Rogers, & Goldberg, 2011; Stephens, 2014). The studies indicate that in schools with a gardening project, pupils eat more fruit and vegetables. Moreover, pupils have a better knowledge of growing fruit and vegetables as well as a better understanding of healthy ingredients. The pupils in these programs learn about the knowledge of using crop rotation for growing different vegetables can reduce the application of pesticides in plant production. 

In 1993 Pehofer (2010) analyzed the status quo of ecological school programs in Austria using a questionnaire. From the 1586 initiatives only a few dealt with school gardening. For Vienna, there are no recent scientific studies on the analysis of the influence of school gardening on pupils’ nutritional attitudes and behavior.

Because only a few researchers described the age group of 16- to 21-year-old pupils in the context of school gardening (Jones et al., 2012; Parmer, 2006; Pierce, 2012), we argue that this group is of specific interest due to the fact they represent those who are on the brink of becoming a relevant consumer group. Therefore our objective was to understand the 16- to 21-year-old pupils’ nutritional awareness toward sustainable aspects in nutrition, and the influence of participation in school gardening on pupils’ sustainable nutritional attitudes and behaviour. Furthermore our intention was to construct a conceptual framework whilst explaining aspects of sustainable nutrition by analyzing pupils’ attitudes and behavior. In relation to our objective, our research question was: “Does the pupils’ participation in school gardening influence their nutritional attitudes and behavior?”


This study is based on quantitative data collected in five schools in Vienna about the pupils’ attitudes and behavior after participation in school gardening programs. The study follows a cross-sectional and ex-post-facto design. The school gardening programs were introduced independently of the study.  Measurements were taken via paper-and-pencil questionnaires.


We collected data via a validated questionnaire. The questionnaire was conceptualized based on behavioral and environmental psychological models which applied to topics of sustainable diets (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Fila & Smith, 2006; Hackman & Knowlden, 2014; Lautenschlager & Smith, 2007). The setup of statistical scale level has been selected for nominal and ordinal scales. Parameters of pupils’ age and school type have been determined to confer a representativeness of the sample. 

The questionnaire consists of anonymous open and closed filtered questions. In total, the questionnaire consisted of 29 questions. The questionnaire is based on Likert Items. In the questionnaire, sustainability and environmental attitudes toward purchase and diet are examined only in closed questions. This is examined using question batteries in the form of Likert Items. To design the layout of the questionnaire, the free software tool LimeSurvey (Schmitz, 2012) was used.

In a pre-test questionnaire in June 2014, 18 pupils from one school were interviewed using a Computer Assisted Personal Questionnaire (Baker, 1992), which was improved using feedback from pupils and teachers on the sections concerning attitudes, intentions and behavioral questions.

The questionnaire took place in Vienna, Austria from June 2014 to December 2014. Here the sustainable nutritional awareness of pupils aged 16 to 21 was explored. 35 pupils did not answer the complete questionnaire but rather gave only incomplete answers.


The sample selection followed the rules of quantitative sampling. Indicators for the selection of schools were similarities in school gardening practices, the distance of schools to each other and pupils’ age.  Pupils from five high schools in Vienna were selected to participate in the study. School composition included: Two vocational schools (one private, one public), two high schools (one private, one public) and one Waldorf school. Of these schools, four had gardening programs and one did not.  One-hundred and eleven pupils of school gardening and 170 pupils of non school gardening classes in the age groups of 16 to 21 have been selected.

Overall, the sample includes 316 pupils, of which 281 pupils answered all questions of the questionnaire. The survey took place in school classes. The questionnaire took 20 minutes on average per pupil. Pupils who participated in the questionnaire were still living within their families. This means that their nutritional attitudes are influenced and chosen from the parents. Regarding the study, this leads to a homogeneous sample. A researcher was present in the classroom during the questionnaire, so that pupils could ask questions in case anything was unclear and to guarantee that the setting of the questionnaires was equal in all classes. The researcher was chosen to be present in order to limit the influence pupils could impose on each other and to give them the opportunity to express their proper opinion.

Statistical Analysis

The dataset was statistically analyzed using SPSS V. 21.0 (IBM, 2012). The reliability of all items of a question battery was tested for internal consistency using Cronbach’s alpha. Descriptive statistics were used to evaluate means and standard deviation. The group of 20 to 21 year-old pupils has been removed in the analyses, because of the small sample size (n=9).

P-values to test for significant differences were computed by using inferential statistics. A normal distribution of all data is not given, so we used the exact Fisher’s test as a robust non-parametric statistic test method.

The hypergeometric distribution is a distribution for sampling without replacement, where the degrees of freedom are an input. There do not exist any degrees of freedom in the presentation of our results because the exact Fishers’ test was used, and this does not include degrees of freedom as an input. We used this test because after crosstabulation the sample sizes were smaller than five. Exact test analyses (C2 distribution, with the Monte Carlo 2-sided significance) were conducted for all P-values to compare pupils’ attitudes and behavior between pupils who did and did not participate in school gardening at a significant level of alpha equal to 5%. 

The interpretation of the result is classified in four groups depending on the p-value obtained in each case. The groups are as follows:

P-value Interpretation

p<=0.001 highly significant

p<=0.01 very significant 

p<=0.05 significant

p>0.05 not significant


With reference to the research objective, the following conceptual framework factors (Figure 1) are presented in the results: 

  • pupils’ nutritional attitudes;
  • their self-assessment toward sustainability knowledge;
  • the self-assessment of their connection on nature and sustainability;
  • the nutritional behavior of families of pupils who participated in school gardening.

Sample socio-demographics

In Austria, compulsory schooling starts with a child’s sixth birthday and lasts nine school years. In the first four years, the attendance of a primary school is obligatory. After primary school, children can either attend a general secondary school (5th to 8th grade), an academic secondary school (5th to 12th grade), a vocational school (9th grade), a vocational middle school (9th to 11th grade), or a vocational high school (9th to 13th grade). 

Thirty-six percent of tested pupils were male and 64% female. Sixteen to seventeen-year-olds represented 51% (n=143) and 18 to 19 year-olds 46% (n=129) of the sample population. The 20 to 21 year-olds are the smallest group with 3% (n=9). Austrians are the most common nationality in the sample, making up 95% of the sample population. The German and Swiss nationalities together represent 4%. Eighty-two percent of the pupils’ homes were located in Vienna, and the remaining 19% were in Lower Austria.

Pupils who we re in the beginning or finishing their high school were interviewed. One question concerned what type of school pupils had attended after completing their 9-year compulsory schooling. Most pupils in the study had attained the grammar-school graduation (52%) and 21% of pupils had a Waldorf-school graduation. Thirteen percent of the pupils had a vocational business school graduation. The remaining 9% of the pupils graduated in new middle and cooperative middle schools. Five percent of the pupils graduated in secondary modern school while <1% finished a graduation outside Austria. 

The representativeness of pupils’ attitudes and behavior is not given for Vienna, because the analyzed school gardening programs are to be seen differently from each other. The study was restricted to five schools with different school types and school gardening curricula in different areas in Vienna, with that, generalizability is limited. Therefore, the results may not be generalizable to other populations.

Nutritional attitudes of pupils who participated  in school gardening

The questionnaire item “Is food produced in school gardens more sustainable than that available in discount stores ?” was formulated to show what attitudes pupils held regarding school gardens, food production and the availability of sustainable healthy food in discount stores.

Forty-nine percent of pupils held the attitude that food produced in school gardens is more sustainable than that which is available in discount stores, whereas 20% of pupils did not hold this attitude. Fifty-two percent of pupils believed, and 13% of pupils did not believe, that in school gardens healthier food is produced than that which is available in discount stores. 

There were no significant differences between the percentage of pupils that believed that in school gardens more sustainable C2=(N =111) =4,48, p = .20 or healthy C2=(N =111) = 1,90, p = .60 food is produced than that which is available in discount stores.

Most of the pupils held the attitude that in school gardens healthier and more sustainable food is produced than that available in discount stores, but the differences are not significant (Table 1) between those two terms.

Table 1: Nutritional attitudes towards sustainable and healthy food of pupils who participated in school gardening

Questionnaire Items Statistic parameters
Percentage of Pupils M SD N
The food produced in school gardens is more sustainable than that which is available in discount stores  true 49 1,96 1,15 111
somewhat true 26
somewhat untrue 6
Untrue 20
The food produced in school gardens is more healthy than that which is available in discount stores true 52 1,81 1,04 111
somewhat true 27
somewhat untrue 7
untrue 13

Annotation. M=Mean, SD= Standard deviation, N= Sample Size.

Influence of participation in school gardening on pupils’ self-assessments towards sustainability knowledge 

A well-founded knowledge about sustainable relations can positively influence pupils’ nutritional behavior. There is a highly significant difference in the perceived sustainability knowledge between the pupils who participated in school gardening programs and those who did not C2=(N =281) =15,07, p < .001.

Of the 111 pupils who participated in a school gardening program, twenty-nine percent describe their level of knowledge as “good” and 58% as “somewhat good”. Of the 170 pupils who did not participate in school gardening programs 14% describe their knowledge as “good” and 59% as “somewhat good”. It is worth nothing that 26% of pupils who did not participate in school gardening have a rather negative attitude towards their sustainability knowledge (Table 2). 

Table 2: Pupils who did and who did not participate in school gardening and their self-assessments towards their sustainability knowledge

Participation in school gardening Pupils’ self-assessments towards 

their sustainability knowledge

Statistic parameters
Percentage of pupils M SD N
Yes  Good 29 1,86 0,68 111
Somewhat  58
Somewhat bad 12
Bad 2
No Good 14 2,15 0,65 170
Somewhat  59
Somewhat bad 26
Bad 1

Annotation. M=Mean, SD= Standard deviation, N= Sample Size.

Influence of participation in school gardening on pupils’ self-assessments towards their connection to nature and sustainability 

According to our framework (Figure 1), connection on nature and sustainability can positively influence pupils’ nutritional behavior. In the questionnaire, we ask the pupils about their connection to nature and sustainability. There is a significant difference C2=(N =281) =9,92, p = .015 between pupils who did and did not participate in school gardening in regard of their self-assessments towards their connection to nature and sustainability. 

Thirty-seven percent of pupils who did not and 63% of those who did participate in school gardening programs say that they have a connection with nature and sustainability. 

Twenty-six percent of pupils who did and 74% who did not participate in school gardening think that they have do not have a connection with nature and sustainability at all. 

There is an equal number of pupils who do and do not have this connection with nature and sustainability (Table 3). 

Table 3: Pupils who did and who did not participate in school gardening and their self-assessments towards their connection on nature and sustainability

Participation in school gardening Pupils’ self-assessments towards their connection to nature and sustainability Statistic parameters
Percentage of pupils M SD N
Yes  True 51 1,70 0,80 111
Somewhat True 37
Somewhat untrue 26
Untrue 50
No True 50 1,97 0,76 170
Somewhat True 63
Somewhat untrue 74
Untrue 50

Annotation. M=Mean, SD= Standard deviation, N= Sample Size.

Nutritional behavior of families of pupils who did and who did not participate in school gardening

Table 4 shows the purchase behavior of families of pupils who did or did not participate in school gardening and their significant or non significant differences.

The difference in the purchase of vegetables or fruits in the organic store and organic supermarket between the families of the..

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Mason JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

JSE April 2019 General Issue Table of Contents

Abstract: A United Nations international collaboration between the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) resulted in the creation of Sulitest® (aka Sustainability Literacy Test) an open, online training and assessment tool freely available to higher education institutions globally. This study analyzes the effectiveness of the newly developed Sulitest® to not only measure sustainability literacy of higher education student populations, but also act as a catalyst for boosting affective learning outcomes by: (a) generating interest in sustainability-related issues, (b) improving sustainability-related understandings, and (c) enhancing students’ interests in the subject matter. In order to do so we present a two-phase, exploratory mixed-method pilot study. Preliminary results from this pilot study reveal Sulitest is a useful tool for not only assessing sustainability literacy but also spurring student interests and motivations in sustainability-related subject matters. Findings, discussion and limitations are provided. 

Keywords: sustainability, sustainability literacy, assessment, learning, motivation, Sulitest, higher education

Disclosure: The manuscript author worked among a voluntary cohort of higher education faculty assisting with revisions and updates to Sulitest under the leadership of Debra Rowe, Ph.D., President, U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development between Oct. 2017 and March 2018. 

Increasing population growth, overexploitation of ecosystems, increasing frequencies of natural hazards, and the production and consumption of non-renewable resources are all factors leading to increased interest in global sustainability and sustainable development. Students enrolled in higher education today are tomorrow’s voters, consumers, decision makers, and leaders; therefore, higher education institutions (HEIs) are regarded as essential spaces for promoting social change and sustainable policies (Christie et al., 2013).  Higher education plays an important role in exposing students to alternative thoughts on a wide variety of controversial and important subjects that spur debate, and may lead to a more civil world; more fair in its policies of governance and the distribution of resources among inhabitants. 

Globally many higher education institutions (HEIs) have created opportunities for diffusing knowledge, values, attitudes and behaviors that favor sustainability. HEIs, as organizations, have also begun integrating sustainability into their mission and vision statements, and further demonstrated their dedication toward advancing sustainability through strategic organizational planning processes, targeted investments in sustainability initiatives, and embedding sustainability frameworks into organizational values as a guide for decision-makers. 

Academic scholarship argues for a broad understanding of sustainability that accepts the environment as fundamental while embracing “economic, health, social justice and other humanitarian concerns” (Selby, 2009, p. 103). Sarabhai (2015) holds that “policy instruments and technological solutions are not going to be enough” and that behavioral change is “critical for achieving sustainable development,” (pg. 122). Given such, scholars argue key aspects of sustainable development (SD) should permeate the critical issues global societies face today including: climate change, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity, discussions about market economy and poverty reduction, and sustainable consumption (UNESCO, 2015). 

Sustainability literacy is conceived to be the knowledge, skills and mindsets that allow individuals to become deeply committed to building a sustainable future and helps them to make informed and effective decisions toward this end (Sulitest, 2017). Due to the breadth and complexity of the sustainability paradigm the ability for HEIs to measure impacts and progress in this domain has proved challenging. In 2006, in response to a perceived lack of tracking systems for evaluating sustainability progress in higher education, the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC) requested the development of a standardized tool for the assessment of higher education sustainability efforts. The resulting product was the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS®) available through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education® (AASHE). 

STARS is a ‘transparent, self-reporting framework’ for colleges and universities to measure their organizational performance, and provides higher education institutions points/credit for assessing student sustainability literacy. Currently STARS 2.1 has 135 criteria across four categories. Education & Research, Operations, Planning Administration & Engagement and Innovation. AASHE has produced four versions of the evaluation criteria since 2007. HEIs that submit a self-assessment report using the STARS criteria are recognized by a platinum, gold, silver, bronze or reporting institution standing.

This study analyzes the effectiveness of the newly developed Sulitest® assessment tool, acceptable in the STARS 2.1 AASHE reporting system within the Education & Research category, to not only measure sustainability-related literacy, but also act as a catalyst for boosting affective learning outcomes by: (a) generating interest in sustainability-related issues, (b) improving sustainability-related understandings, and (c) enhancing students’ interests in the subject matter. In order to do so we present a two-phase, exploratory mixed-method pilot study. The following section includes: an overview of sustainability-related pedagogy, a review of sustainability-related assessments, and presents the research questions advanced in the study. 

Sustainability Pedagogy & Practices

Prior research indicates that post-secondary education makes a limited contribution to changes in graduates’ knowledge and attitudes toward environmental and sustainability issues (Arnon, Orion, & Carmi, 2015; Yavetz, Goldman, & Pe’er, 2009). Yet, a variety of pedagogical approaches and learning outcomes have been recognized as contributing to broadening sustainability literacy in higher education student populations. Participatory, active, and experiential learning are argued to be essential strategies for promoting deep and meaningful learning in higher education (Dori & Belcher, 2005; Tsaushu, et al. 2012). Specifically, in the field of sustainable development (SD) “experiential, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and student-centered learning” are highly recommended approaches (Cotton & Winter, 2010; Domask, 2007) that enable students to associate their learning with real-life issues (Higher Education Academy, 2013).  These efforts often include opportunities for personal involvement. These student contributions toward the learning process often include activities and assignments that involve service learning, civic engagement, group discussions, role play, and are all useful in the facilitation of affective learning (Shepard, 2008). 

Extant literature also indicates that knowledge and higher order thinking skills are essential, but not sufficient to develop students’ views about SD, and that learning outcomes should include both cognitive and affective components (i.e., values, attitudes) (e.g. Shephard 2008; Sipos, Battisti, & Grimm 2008).  Consequentially, pedagogical approaches that provide experiential, interactive, and collaborative opportunities encourage students to develop and reflect on their own values, enabling the educational process to shift from a knowledge transfer focus (e.g., cognitive components) toward personal transformation (Higher Education Academy, 2013) thus resulting in increased affective learning (Shephard, 2008).  In the SD domain affective learning outcomes may include: awareness, attitudes, and commitment. Affective learning may manifest in the awareness of environmental impacts of human activity, attitudes toward social equity, and the motivation to promote or engage in sustainability behaviors (Domask, 2007; Sipos, Battisti, & Grimm, 2008). 

Assessing Sustainability Literacy in Higher Education

As campus sustainability initiatives have expanded so too has interest in how best to assess the progress and impact of these efforts. Callewaert (2018) notes sustainability assessment generally fall into two distinct categories, “those focused on the assessment of student learning regarding sustainability, and those focused on the assessment of campus culture—the sustainability values, behaviors, and awareness of students, faculty and staff,” (pg. 453). Historically, AASHE has supported both categories of assessment, yet there remained a demand for a standardized tool designed to acutely measure sustainability literacy in student populations within higher education.

The 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development urged that HEIs play an increasingly important role in developing their students’ awareness of global sustainability challenges. An international collaboration between the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) resulted in the creation of Sulitest® (aka Sustainability Literacy Test) an open online training and assessment tool available free to HEIs worldwide.

Through the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), leaders of HEIs and related organizations, acknowledged the responsibility they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development. The mission of Sulitest.org is to “expand sustainable knowledge, skills, and mindset that motivates individuals to become deeply committed to build a sustainable future and to make informed and effective decisions,” (Sultitest.org, 2017).   In general, sustainability literacy assessment tools are designed to “gauge current levels of knowledge and track changes over time, as well as assess the effectiveness of courses and curricula at meeting sustainability knowledge goals,” (Zwickle, Koontz, Slagle & Bruskotter, 2014, pg. 375). These assessment tools are frequently distributed via annual campus-wide surveys, course instructors and/or learning management systems (LMS). 

Sulitest enables HEIs to assess whether they are producing sustainability literate graduates, while also engaging stakeholders (e.g., administrators, faculty), which may subsequently accelerate the integration of sustainability into higher education standards and learning outcomes across a multitude of disciplines (Décamps, Barbat, Carteron, Hands, & Parkes, 2017).  Yet many HEIs are resistant to changing current assessment methods for a variety of reasons including: (1) the financial resources previously invested in creating and developing current data collection methods, (2) the inability to analyze long term trends in student populations by switching to a new assessment format, and finally, (3) the perceived lack of control for organizing, interpreting and distributing results required for external reporting agencies. Alternatively, many HEIs have found Sulitest to be a preferable alternative to current practices because of (1) the low-cost, no-cost investment required for implementation and utilization, (2) the ability to localize and tailor questions to specific institutions and student populations, (3) the acceptance of the tool in the STARS 2.1 reporting system currently available to HEIs participating in AASHE, and (4) the high-quality of the data analytics and feedback that provides visual insight into HEI’s student populations in a comparative format, both locally and globally. 

Sulitest was conceived so that the questions could assess an individual’s current knowledge of sustainable development (SD) and also serve as an information pipeline motivating participants to learn more and act. The stated goal of the overall experience of taking the test is to help learners “understand the bigger picture,” as well as, “be touched and inspired by specific stories or facts,” while avoiding the tendencies to memorize lists of facts, figures, issues and challenges without making systemic connections. Problematic issues arise when HEIs use environmental knowledge as an indicator of environmental literacy, sometimes with the explicitly stated purpose of measuring sustainability literacy.  Assessment methods that rely on fact-based, cognitive memorization is an acknowledged weakness of many of the environmental knowledge and environmental literacy instruments historically used to document student learning and literacy in the sustainability domain.

Internationally recognized as one of the seventeen featured initiatives of the UN partnerships for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Sulitest is now a contributor to the review of the 2030 Agenda through the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) (see Table 1 for a review of SD goals). At the time of this manuscript there are 721 public and private institutions, from 61 countries who have completed 85,139 Sulitests. Each Sulitest question is aligned to one or more goals from the U.N. Global Agenda, creating the largest database of citizens’ awareness and understanding of global sustainability in human history. 

Sulitest is designed with (1) a systemic educational framework; (2) uses a list of tags and keywords to ensuring balance among the SD subject matter presented; and (3) provides a direct correspondence between the assessment questions used for assessment and the UN SDGs’ framework. An example question along with feedback is included in the appendix materials of this manuscript. The Sulitest Core Module uses 30 questions from the same question bank for every respondent worldwide. An additional 20 questions are localized to specific countries and cultures. The test is currently is available in a variety of languages including: English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, Portuguese, Welch, and Italian

Table 1. UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)- 2030 Agenda
SDG1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere
SDG2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
SDG3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
SDG4 Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunitiesSDG5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
SDG6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
SDG7 Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
SDG8 Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, decent work for all
SDG9 Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
SDG10 Reduce inequality within and between countries
SDG11 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
SDG12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
SDG13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
SDG14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
SDG15 Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
SDG16 Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
SDG17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development
Note: The establishment of the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was mandated in 2012 by the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  HLPF is the main United Nations platform on sustainable development and it has a central role in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the global level.  For more information visit: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org 

Given the stated objectives of Sulitest, and in consideration of the format and elements integrated into the Sulitest design, this analysis seeks to understand if the assessment tool is effective at both assessing sustainability literacy and also delivering content in a manner that positively impacts sustainability-related awareness and attitudes (e.g., affective learning outcomes). In order to do so the below research question is offered. 

RQ1. Does utilization of the Sulitest impact (a) student learning and (b) student motivation toward sustainability-related concepts?

In October 2017, the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative’s (HESI) Sustainable Literacy Test (Sulitest) reports that currently students’ knowledge about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is relatively homogenous across all 17 SDGs, with some variations noted. A recent report titled, ‘Mapping Awareness of the Global Goals,’ found that there are no SDGs on which students had complete awareness and no SDGs that had a very low level of awareness (Decamps & Carterton, 2017).Overall students had the highest awareness on SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 14 (life below water), SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), with scores of 60 percent or greater on questions related to these six SDGs.

Sustainability principles have broad applications across many academic domains of the natural and social sciences, in addition to the arts, business, education and technology. As a result some academic programs may emphasize sustainability concepts to a greater degree compared to their counterparts. Because sustainability may be emphasized in some academic programs more than others a student’s perceived knowledge of sustainability is anticipated to moderate responses to Sulitest and the below research question is offered. 

RQ2: Will a priori sustainability-related knowledge moderate learning and motivation outcomes? 


In the fall of 2017, undergraduate students from a Midwest institution were invited to take part in a 2-phase exploratory pilot study which involved completing Sulitest, and a follow-up survey of the participants’ attitudes and motivations toward sustainability. To begin basic demographic information was collected including: age, ethnicity, and educational status (i.e., freshman, sophomore, etc). 

Perceived Knowledge. Participants were asked to respond to a single item to measure their perceived knowledge of sustainability on a 7-pt Likert scale ranging from far above average to far below average

Functionality. Several attitude statements were used to measure participants’ attitudes toward Sulitest including:  ease of registration, clearly use of language, page by page question style, easily understood information, preference for online format, and finally, length/time required for completion. Each statement was assessed on a 7-pt Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Learning. A series of attitude statements were used to gauge the impact of the assessment tool on learning such as: The Sulitest helped me to: (a) reflect on my sustainability knowledge, (b) understand my growth and improvements, (c) see sustainability opportunities in the world around me, (d) understand how my knowledge of sustainability compares with others in the U.S., and (e) understand how my knowledge of sustainability compares with others globally. Each response was assessed on a 7-pt Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Motivation. A series of attitude statements were used to measure the impact on student motivation by responding to a series of statements such as: The Sulitest motivated me to: (a) seek additional information about sustainability-related concepts, (b) share sustainability-related information with others I know, and (c) will retake the Sulitest voluntarily in the future. Each statement was assessed on a 7-pt Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Qualitative Questions. Three open-ended questions were provided to participants. Each participant was invited, but not required, to respond. The questions asked participants to describe the perceived strengths of Sulitest, describe the value of their experience, and each was invited to offer critique and feedback for improving or augmenting Sulitest.  

Report of Findings

A total of 45 undergraduate participants were recruited through a Midwestern university in the United States. Participants completed a two-phase study in the fall of the 2017. The first phase of the study required students to complete the Sulitest. The second phase of the study included a follow-up survey, distributed through the Communication Research Lab (CRL) using Qualtrics software within seven days of Phase 1. The materials and measures used in this study were approved through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and findings will be presented in two sections. The first section summarizes the Sulitest results for this sample, and the second reports the quantitative and qualitative results of this pilot study, including the Phase 2 14-item scale representing the three areas of concentration measuring attitudes and perceptions toward functionality, learning and motivation. 

Sample Description

The sample was 71% female (n=32) and 29% male (n=13). The sample was 80% White/Caucasian (n=37), 13% African American, 4.35% American Indian/Native American and 2.17% identified as more than one race.   The sample was 2% freshman (n=1), 11% sophomore (n=5), 31% juniors (n=14), 49% seniors (n=22), and 6% graduate students (n=3).

Phase 1: Sulitest Feedback for Sample

The Sulitest feedback indicates that on the Core International items participants scored well on in the following areas: sustainability, humanity and ecosystems; global and local human construction systems; transition toward sustainability; and finally, role-to-play, individual and systematic change. The strongest responses, represented by the highest degree of accuracy related to the SDG 14 Life below water, SDG08 Decent work and economic growth, SDG17 Partnerships for the Goals, and SDG12 Responsible Consumption and Production. 

Phase 2:..

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Freed – JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

Abstract: Environmental education scholars have argued for the need to focus on identity as a more predictive factor than attitude of individuals’ environmental behavior. We examine individuals’ decision-making as a mediating process between identity and behavior. University undergraduates (n=299) were surveyed, with a select sub-sample interviewed. As expected, environmental identity was correlated with pro-environment behavior (recycling). However, students with lower pro-environmental identity also recycled regularly. Similarly, analysis of decision-making revealed most students, regardless of their environmental identity, do not think much when recycling. Environmental structures such as presence of recycling bins surfaced as a powerful influence on pro-environment behavior.

Keywords: environmental identity, pro-environmental behaviors, decision-making, mixed-methods, undergraduates


The overarching goal of this research is to understand how to foster students’ pro-environmental behavior. Past research in environmental education research has given attention to individuals’ environmental attitudes and its effect on environmental behaviors. However, the relationship between environmental attitudes and behaviors has proven complex and inconsistent (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002; Heberlein, 2012). In this study, we focus on another individual characteristic: environmental identity. Scholars have argued for the need to focus on identity (Payne, 2001; Clayton, 2003; Blatt, 2014; Stapleton, 2015) and a growing body of research suggests identity is more predictive than attitude of individuals’ environmental behaviors (Clayton, 2003; Kempton & Holland, 2003).

In addition, prior research clearly indicates that individual characteristics, e.g., attitude and identity, do not exert a direct influence on pro-environmental behavior. Instead, mediating factors must be considered. Consequently, our conceptual framework includes decision-making as a factor mediating between identity and behavior. We use Kahneman’s decision-making model which posits that consideration about how to act can occur be characterized on a continuum from faster, automatic thinking to slower, deliberating thinking.

This research has implications for environmental education research community because understanding the mechanisms behind the daily decisions people make and why they make them can illuminate on how educators can prepare, influence, and educate people to act in more positive ways toward the natural world.

Literature Review

Fostering Pro-Environmental Behavior by Changing Attitudes

One approach to fostering students’ pro-environmental behavior emerges from the assumption that changes in students’ attitudes are pre-requisite to behavior changes. Gardner and Stern’s (1996) review noted that instructional interventions to changing students’ attitudes focus on morals (it’s the right thing to do), education (it’s the informed thing to do), incentive (doing it leads to rewards), or community (it’s what’s others are doing). Gardner and Stern found that each of these intervention types, if carefully executed, could change behavior. However, moral and educational approaches have generally disappointing track records, and even incentive and community approaches rarely produce much change on their own. By far, the most effective behavior change programs involve combinations of intervention types.

Social scientists have continued to study why people act in certain ways. In a research project studying the effect of environmental attitudes on behavior, Heberlein and Black (1974, 1976) measured attitudes of people who were observed purchasing lead-free gasoline (before lead-free gasoline was the norm). They found lead-free buyers had a greater sense of personal obligation and were more likely to anticipate long-term savings than those who purchased regular gasoline. Heberlein and Black found that more specific attitudes linked more closely to the specific act of purchasing lead free gas. The specific attitudes of having personal obligation and knowing the amount of economic savings were two variables necessary to behave in a pro-environmental way.

The New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) was created to explore and interpret broad, overarching environmental attitudes. The NEP is a broad worldview that takes into consideration environmental problems and how humans impact the Earth. People adopting the NEP have eco-centric attitudes meaning they value the natural environment for its intrinsic value (Dunlap, 2008; Dunlap et al., 2000). A number of authors (e.g., Dalton, Gontmacher, Lovrich, & Pierce, 1999; Edgell & Nowell, 1989; Gooch, 1995) believe the NEP represents a set of beliefs toward the environment and it influences behavior and attitudes (Ewert, Place, & Sibthorp, 2005). However, the NEP scale has done a poor job of predicting participation in specific environmental behaviors (Heberlein, 2012).

Critique of Attitude Studies

Much attention has been given to environmental attitudes and their effect on participating in environmental behaviors. But, the relationship between environmental attitudes and behaviors is complex and it has proven difficult to foster or predict behaviors using attitudes alone.  In their review of the literature, Heimlich and Ardoin (2008) concluded “many findings are inconclusive, while others are contradictory. Little consensus exists on how, and to what extent, attitudes affect and can predict environmental behavior.” (p. 221).  Why is the relationship between attitude and behavior so weak and inconsistent?

First, research has often shown a discrepancy between attitude and behavior (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). Diekmann and Preisendoerfer (1992) used a cost analysis model to suggest people choose pro-environmental behaviors that require the least economic and psychological (i.e. time, effort, motivation) cost. They found that environmental attitude and pro-environmental behaviors such as recycling were significantly correlated but other pro-environmental behaviors like driving less did not correlate with environmental attitudes. Similarly, Heberlein (2012) found that the strength of the behavior barrier mattered when understanding the relationship between attitude and behavior. Economic concerns would be considered a strong behavior barrier. If it will cost money to act environmental an individual may not participate in the behavior consistently.

Second, competition or prioritization among different values is another complicating factor. People may hold values or worldviews consistent with concern for the environment, but those values may not be as salient as other social comparison values like showing up the neighbor with a large SUV. Kempton and Holland (2003) suggest that upholding one’s social status is often judged more important than dedicating time and energy to being environmentally friendly.  Thus, one of primary reasons why the relationship between attitudes and behavior is so complex is that the relationship seems to be typically mediated by other factors. The connection between one’s attitude about the environment is considered against other priorities or in terms of its relative cost (Diekmann & Preisendoerfer, 1992; Kempton & Holland, 2003). Based on a study examining undergraduate and graduate students’ understanding of sustainable practices and their personal accountability for taking those actions, students at a large Midwestern University did not accept their personal responsibility for maintaining a sustainable campus (Rosentrater & Burke, 2018).

Third, evidence of the questionable relationship between individual’s environmental attitudes and behaviors can be found in intervention studies – studies built on the assumption that changing individuals’ attitudes should lead to corresponding changes in their behavior. McKenzie-Mohr (2000) concluded after reviewing a variety of intervention studies that enhancing knowledge and creating supportive attitudes often has little or no impact upon behavior. For instance, Geller (1981) reports a study where members of households who were interested in enhancing the energy efficiency of their homes participated in a workshop on energy conservation. There were significant changes in knowledge and attitudes about energy conservation, but their behavior did not change.Similarly, efforts to change people’s water consumption met with similarly disappointing results (Geller, Erickson & Buttram, 1983). Members of households volunteered to be a part of a 10-week study of water conservation and received a booklet outlining the relationship between water use and energy use and certain methods for conserving water. No impact on water consumption was found. Similarly, according to Finger (1994), the results of two surveys conducted in Switzerland showed that environmental attitudes and knowledge were poorly associated with environmental behavior. Also, Bickman (1972) reported that when five hundred people were interviewed asking about their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% acknowledged their responsibility, yet only 2% picked up litter.

Identity as a Factor

Although the relationship between pro-environmental attitudes and behavior may seem inherent, research clearly suggests environmental attitude is a complex and difficult construct to work with (Heberlein, 2012). Attitudes may be the least important factor affecting human behavior (Heberlein, 2012). What are alternatives? In this study, we examine the potential of another budding construct in environmental education for examining environmental behaviors (Payne, 2001; Clayton, 2003; Blatt, 2014; Stapleton, 2015): individual’s environmental identity.

Generally, identity can be defined as distinctive characteristics associated with an individual or group. One’s identity is linked with one’s self-concept, values and beliefs about who one is, and what one wants others to know about oneself (Clayton & Opotow, 2003). According to Clayton and Opotow (2003), environmental identity is the way we define the environment, the amount of connection and similarity we feel with the natural world and whether we believe the natural, world is a valued component of our social and moral community. In addition, Payne (2001) reiterated that identity includes how one presents oneself in a variety of contexts, how one makes sense of oneself and how others relate to how one presents oneself.

Unlike attitudes, environmental identity has both social and environmental influences and can have behavioral implications across situations and contexts (Stets & Biga, 2003). For example, a stronger environmental identity can predict pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors and is also associated with a desire to be active in more specific issues like animal rights (Clayton, Fraser & Burgess, 2011). Environmental identities are inherently social. Environmental identity depends on a common social meaning and understanding of what nature is and how it is to be “utilized” (Clayton, 2003, p. 10). Environmental identity is also influenced by social interactions. For instance, Clayton and Opotow (2003) mention that environmental identities are influenced by group membership such as political party.

When it comes to environmental decisions and behaviors, individuals use their actions as a way to “make statements about their personal and collective values or to define who they are through the causes they support” (Rivot & Kahneman, 1997; Clayton & Opotow, 2003, p. 4). Unlike the complexity of attitudes, individuals usually act in accordance to their identity (Kempton & Holland, 2003). Studies have found environmental identity to have a higher correlation and to be more predictive of environmental behavior than attitudes (Clayton, 2003; Stets & Biga, 2003; Kempton & Holland, 2003; Zavestoski, 2003; Blatt, 2013; Stapleton, 2015).

How one acts, interacts, and communicates are all part of one’s identity (Payne, 2001). According to Stapleton (2015), based on the social perspectives of identity development, one’s identity can influence how people are recognized and how they act. Participants with strong environmental identities also perceived their decisions on environmental crises as easier than participants with weak environmental identities (Clayton, 2003). Participants with strong environmental identities were also more confident in their decisions (Clayton, 2003). Identifying with the natural world would make one more likely to make environmental decisions quickly and confidently.

Decision-Making as a Mediating Factor

As we prepared to investigate how individuals’ pro-environment identity influences their behavior, we kept in mind lessons from prior research – that it would be difficult to find a clear relationship between individual characteristics (e.g., identity, attitude, knowledge) and behavior (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008).  Consequently, we decided to include a mediating factor between identity and behavior as part of our conceptual framework. We chose decision making as the meditating factor because it is frequently identified as a central component of environmental literacy. In addition, the process of environmental decision-making is the kind of student characteristic that lends itself logically to being developed through education. (See Figure 1).

PDF of Freed Figure 1

Figure 1. Cognitive Processes as Mediating Factors for Pro-Environmental Behaviors.

Kahneman’s model for decision-making.  We use Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 decision-making model as a conceptual framework for studying students’ decision making about their environmental behaviors. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, work has focused on judgment, decision-making, and behavior. Of particular interest, were intuitive judgments, or “thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection” (Kahneman, 2003, p. 697). According to Kahneman (2003), intuitive judgments lie somewhere between automatic operations of perceptions and deliberate operations of reasoning (Kahneman & Frederick, 2002; Sloman, 2002; Stanovich, 1999; Stanovich & West, 2000). According to Kahneman (2003, 2011) and others, the way individuals make decisions and judgments can be divided into two distinct cognitive processing groups: System 1 and System 2 (Stanovich, 1999; Evans, 2008). System 1 decisions are fast, automatic, effortless, associative, implicit, and emotionally charged (Kahneman, 2003, 2011). Decisions made in System 2 are more conscious, effortful, deliberately controlled, easily flexible, and rule driven (Kahneman, 2003, 2011).

Our rationale to use Kahneman’s framework emerged from our concern for the educational implications of this research. System 1 and System 2 thinking are distinguished by the degree to which knowledge and thinking are brought to bear on decision-making. As thinking and decisions become more deliberate, it is influenced more by the individuals’ understanding of the issue and their thinking strategies. Development of students’ understanding of issues and strategies for thinking are the realm and responsibility of education. According to Arvai, Campbell, Baird, & Rivers, (2004), the most effective way to help students become better environmental decision makers and overcome the many biases they encounter is to help students become aware of the traps they may encounter and to develop the strategies for making sensible, structured decisions.

Research Questions

  1. What is the association between university students’ environmental identity and pro-environmental behavior?
  2. What is the relationship between university students’ environmental identity, decision-making, and pro-environmental behavior?



In the fall of 2014, 299 undergraduate students completed a three-part survey at a large Midwestern University. A majority of the participants (n=237) were enrolled in an introductory educational psychology course called Reflections on Learning. The other 62 participants were enrolled in an Introduction to Sustainabilitycourse. These groups were selected because of their potential for providing the desired variability for the overall sample. Undergraduate students were selected for their potential future contributions to important environmental decisions. These students represent the future leaders and opinion makers in society and will make important environmental decisions (Smith-Sebasto & D’Acosta, 1995; Ewert et al., 2005).


Environmental Identity Scale. The scale was constructed to assess the extent to which the natural environment plays an important role in a person’s self-definition (Olivos & Aragones, 2011; Clayton, 2003). The scale was composed of 24-5-point Likert scale items that measure six constructs. These constructs included: interactions with nature, group membership, ideology, values and priorities, positive emotions and experiences in nature and self-concept.

Environmentally Responsible Behaviors Index (ERBI). The ERBI was developed by Smith-Sebasto and D’Acosta (1995) to predict environmentally responsible behavior among undergraduate students. The index contained twenty-five 5-point Likert-scale items presented as examples of pro-environment behaviors with a response format scale (from 1 = rarely to 5 = usually). As a guideline, rarely is “in less than 10% of the chances when I could have”; occasionally is in 30% of the chance; sometimes is 50% of the chances; frequently is 70%; and usually is 90% (Smith-Sebasto & D’Acosta, 1995;Thapa, 1999). The index was designed to reference the categories of environmentally responsible behaviors including: civic action (three items), education action (five items), financial action (seven items), legal action (two items), persuasion action (one item), and physical action (six items).

Decision-Making Questionnaire. Kahneman’s framework was used to develop the decision-making questionnaire. The goal of the questionnaire was to examine the type of thinking that participants used to make the environmental decision to recycle. The questionnaire consisted of 6, 5-point Likert scale statements based on the characteristics of System 1 and 2 thinking. These characteristics included: slow/fast, effortful/effortless, affecting thinking capacity/not affecting thinking capacity, neutral/emotional, conscious/automatic, and skeptical/certain. A response of a 1 was considered slow thinking and a response of 5 was considered fast thinking. Each item asked participants about a different component/characteristic of System 1 and 2 thinking.

Interview.The 45-60 minute interviews consisted of a variety of open-ended questions and card sort activities (Arthur & Nazroo, 2013) with the goal of acquiring additional information and details about students’ thinking while making the decisions to recycle and participate in other everydayenvironmental behaviors. The interviews provided other information about students’ environmental identities including examples of outdoor experiences and how social interactions affected their participation in environmental behaviors. Coding began with using categories that included the key constructs of environmental identity (Clayton, 2003), environmental responsible behaviors (Smith-Sebasto & D’Acosta, 1995) and fast and slow decision-making (Kahneman, 2011). After the initial round of coding, a set of themes was established that led to the final coding themes of group membership/collective identity, physical environment, System1 and System 2, values, and social influences on learning. The themes used for this paper include: group membership/collective identity, physical environment and System 1 and 2 thinking.


This study had a mixed methods sequential explanatory design (Lodico, Spaulding, & Voegtle, 2006; Creswell, 2006). The previous research exploring environmental identity has been solely quantitative or qualitative, so a new methodological approach was explored to enhance understandings of the relationships between identity, pro-environmental behavior participation and making decisions to recycle.

The quantitative phase began in the fall of 2014. With permission from the course instructors, the study was described, consent was given, and the survey was administered.

The survey responses were analyzed using a variety of statistical analyses. Following analysis, a sample of participants was selected for an interview. In the qualitative phase, the interviews were conducted with eight participants. Table 1 shows the interview participants’ survey scores.

Table 1. Interview participants’ survey scores.

PDF of Freed Table 1

Results & Discussion

Environmental Identity is Correlated With Pro-Environmental Behavior

Quantitative analysis indicates a positive correlation (r = 0.685, p < .01) between environmental identity score and pro environmental behavior for the entire sample of participants (N= 299). This means that individuals who had strong environmental identities as evidenced by statements – such as when asked how the natural environment fit into her identity Molly said,

“I think I care a little bit more. When people laugh that I recycle everything, I’ve recycled everything since I was young. Like I’ve never really lived in an environment where we didn’t reuse or we didn’t recycle.”

Olivia said the natural environment is part of her identity because,

“The natural environment has kind of always been there. Like I said when we were younger we would be outside all the time. We would pass through to a forest, which used to be a cranberry bog so it’s a wetland so we would go back there and play in the trees. And so I think just growing up in that area really helped mold me.”

The positive correlation between identity and behavior is not unexpected: Individuals who think of themselves, as environmentalists should behave like environmentalists. Things become more interesting when we take a closer look at this correlation in light of the qualitative data. In the interviews with our subsample of students, we found the frequency of their recycling seemed..

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Papania – JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

Abstract: Students are transformed when they realize that their theory-based actions have real and meaningful impact. Student learning outcomes are enhanced when they realize this impact. This is important, because the topic of sustainability involves a huge amount of grim data about the state of the planet and our impending demise; and an urgent call for action to make positive impact. To enable my MBA students to take action, I designed an experiential, action-research and transformational pedagogical approach; and a mixed-methods study to assess if/ how students engaged with, and learned or cared about sustainability when it was delivered at the level of personal impact and personal action. I found that making sustainability personal did not cause alienation, but did significantly contribute to learning and caring in all students in the course. However, students’ comfort with uncertainty moderated their perceptions of learning, which provides insight for how to improve the course in the future.

Keywords: sustainability leadership; MBA; experiential learning; transformational learning; agency; personal action; action research

The Call to Action

For decades now, we have unfortunately allowed ourselves to live in a state of denial about the consequences of our actions on the planet that have caused, for example, an excessive accumulation of CO2in the atmosphere (Klein, 2014; Mackay, 2008; Rich, 2018). Our lifestyles have also led to so much plastic in the ocean that marine life and ocean ecosystems are being decimated (Stokstad, 2006). As scientists projected, an increasing number of communities are seeing their homes destroyed as a result of extreme weather conditions (Rich, 2018). However, despite our evolving awareness of the social, environmental and economic impacts of climate change, we – governments, organizations and individuals – are generally struggling to agree on what to do about it (Mackay, 2008).

Despite consensus in the scientific community that human existence is threatened as a result our changing climate (Cook, 2013), a proliferation of misleading information has led to 33% of Canadians believing that climate change is not real (Klein, 2014; Zimonjik, 2018). Much of this disbelief is as a result of actions by governments and corporations that fail to acknowledge or redress unsustainable practices. In many cases these organizations have worked to support and perpetuate actions that lead to climate change. Their actions have served to undermine efforts to address or stop the causes of climate change. In large part, due to the significant number of individuals and organizations that question the existence, severity and causes of climate change and a lack of agreement about how to approach sustainability, governments and major corporations have largely continued to take stands and enact policies that put our planet at increasing risk (Klein, 2014; Rich, 2018).

According to the maxim attributed to Margaret Mead – as with all change – reversing the status quo will come down to a small group of individuals taking collective action. Therefore, when invited, I accepted the challenge to teach sustainability to graduate business students. It seemed opportune to teach sustainability leadership to and work with this part-time MBA cohort to enact change in the face of uncertainty and, potentially, impending climate disaster (Rich, 2018).

Usually, I teach innovation and strategy at the undergraduate level but, as an action researcher and social entrepreneur who observes, seeks to understand, and then enacts change at a community level, I engage regularly with and talk about sustainability to groups and individuals from 10 to 80 years old. I have found that connecting with individuals in an emotional and personal way – that relates directly to their own experience and action – is the most powerful way of enabling sustainability change. As a result, I argued to teach the part-time MBA class experientially, approaching the course from an action research perspective.

Since experiential learning involves the student directly interacting with and applying theoretical and abstracted learning to and in the world (Dewey, 1916/2008; Heron & Reason, 1997; Hill & MacDonald, 2016; Kolb, 2014), I felt comfortable proposing this approach to the course. Also, the higher education context enabled students to apply their sustainability learning as leadership; which would give students an opportunity to not only learn about sustainability in a real-life context, but to personally and immediately begin to address complex and pressing sustainability challenges to instigate and realize different – better – real-life outcomes (Burns, 2016; Greenwood & Levin, 2007).

Sustainability relates to understanding the interconnectedness between global social and relational issues, local community networks, economic systems, environmental boundaries, and political institutions (Burns 2016; Capra, 2002; Komives et al., 2005; Nolet, 2009). Sustainability requires the generation and implementation of collaborative solutions to real, dynamic and compounding problems (Steffen et al., 2015; Weissman, 2012). Leadership is a critical component of sustainability (Parkin, 2010), and teaching sustainability requires enabling students to become change makers and change leaders in their communities (Burns, 2016; Shriberg & MacDonald, 2013).

Emotion, Learning, and Empowerment

I argued that bringing sustainability down to personal action would encourage and enhance learning about the factors contributing to climate change, and a feeling of empowerment to affect positive outcomes (O’Regan, 2003; Weiss, 2000; Zembylas, 2007). “Emotion impels what we attend to, and attention drives learning. So, one of the most important things we have to do is to ensure that learners become emotionally involved in whatever we’re teaching them” (Weiss, 2000: 47). My insistence on making sustainability personal was supported by educational psychology research on experiential education that emotion enhances attention, focus and memory (Goralnik, Millenbah, Nelson & Thorp, 2012). This research also states that education in general, and sustainability education in particular, has an obligation to engage students emotionally, and enable students to understand their personal role in decision-making (Burns, 2016; Furrer & Skinner, 2003; Goralnik et al., 2012; Skinner, Marchand, Furrer, & Kindermann, 2008; Wentzel, 1997).

Learning about sustainability is very much influenced by students’ own subjectivity, which is made up by their own unconscious and conscious views of the world, how they relate to the world, their emotions about how the world works, and their emotions when their views are challenged (Robinson & Ferfolja, 2001; Weedon, 1997). Students’ knowledge is comprised of “truths” they hold about the world, and the degree of power they feel they have in their life based on these “truths”. Students (and people in general) are active participants/ agents in the construction of their own perception of the world and their influence over it (Robinson & Ferfolja, 2001; Sawicki, 1991). Experiential learning involves “complex interactions between experience, perception, cognition, and behavior” (Hill & MacDonald 2016: 55).

Examples beyond sustainability, in the areas of teaching other controversial topics like ethics, immigration and politics, illustrate that taking content to the level of personal feelings enables conversations about the broader applications and implications of students’ learning (Bauer & Clancy, 2017; Goralnik, et al., 2012). Value conflicts sparked by discussions around controversial topics activate the brain emotionally in a persistent way (McCuen & Shah; 2007). People in general react emotionally in such instances, before engaging in logical thought. “Only as the emotional involvement wanes can actions be influenced by cognitive thinking” (McCuen & Shah; 2007: 45). If learning starts with focusing on intellectual cognitive development when teaching controversial topics, students are not taught the skills to deconstruct or process their initial emotional response, and therefore are not able to make logical decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand (Bauer & Clancy, 2017; Goralnik et al., 2012; Kort, Reilly, & Picard, 2001). “Instruction to improve emotional maturity must be accompanied by teaching of cognitive subject matter if long-term learning is to occur. Emotions influence the solution of ethical problems as they affect the accuracy of the problem assessment and the accuracy, intensity, and duration of an emotive response” (McCuen & Shah; 2007:44).

Higher education provides the space and opportunity to create engaged, active citizens who are motivated to care, instead of students simply armed with content knowledge (Goralnik, et al., 2012; Dewey, 1938). Scholars note the importance in sustainability leadership education of gaining awareness and consciousness of how we live as individuals and our impact on society and the environment (Burns 2016; Ferdig, 2007). By starting at a personal level, Bauer and Clancy (2017) show that students are able to expand the scope of their understanding beyond simply their own thoughts and actions, to include wider contexts and society. More importantly, experiential higher education in sustainability empowers students to make ethical decisions, and impels them to personal and societal action (Goralnik, et al., 2012; Johnson & Frederickson, 2000).

Pre-empting the Backfire Effect

However, being sustainable inherently relates to behaviours. Humans do not choose and enact behaviours based on their values. Instead, in line with the justification hypothesis, humans justify their behaviours using their values. Therefore, by getting students to question and rethink their behaviours, and asking them to assess the impact of their behaviours, I would be challenging or questioning their values. Zawadski, Danube and Shields (2012) note that teaching students controversial or contested subjects (in their case, gender inequity and sexism) is often met with reactance. The authors define reactance as “as a motivational state to refuse information and consider it untrue regardless of its content or actual veracity, typically because the information

is perceived as constraining one’s choices (based on Brehm and Brehm 1981)” (p.606). They go on to state that, when faced with the possibility that their choices were about to be constrained, individuals sometimes develop hostility towards certain ideas, even if they had never exhibited the behaviours or attitudes that were being challenged or questioned (Rosen and Mericle, 1979; Zawadski, et al, 2012).

Therefore, there was a very real risk that making sustainability personal would make students feel judged and get defensive, alienating them from learning about sustainability and from taking action in their personal and professional lives. Many experts with whom I discussed my plans for teaching this course suggested keeping the learning at arm’s length; laying the responsibility for sustainability at “someone else’s” feet. However, as an experiential educator, I remained committed to contextualizing learning and to teaching by doing.

Zawadski and his co-authors (2012), drawing on the work of researchers such as Burke, et al. (2011) and Eubank and colleagues (2011), suggest that experiential learning is especially effective in teaching students to grapple with complex, dynamic information, and when deeply ingrained behaviours and perspectives are challenged. The researchers recommend that controversial information should be taught in a way to increase feelings of self-efficacy(based on Bandura, 1977). What this means is that material should be taught in a way to enable students to feel personally capable of implementing the behaviours in order to achieve goals aligned with the new material they are learning, even (and especially) if these differ significantly from their pre-existing behaviours and perceptions. Drawing on Kolb’s work (2014); and Kolb and Kolb’s work (2005), Zawadski and his colleagues (2012) explain that feelings of self-efficacy are promoted when students are led through a four-stage process involving:

  1. having concrete spontaneous or guided experiences on which they can reflect; which, aided by
  2. peer learning and discussion; lead to
  3. abstract ideas which connect past experiences to future actions they can take; culminating in
  4. putting new knowledge into practice, even if in small and experimental ways that reflect or are actually embedded in their personal and work situations (Webster-Wright, 2009).

I did not start the course with the assumption that humans in general, or the students in particular, are bad and engage in terrible behaviours with regards to the planet. I started the course with the assumption that, generally, consumers are unaware of all the implications of their behaviours. My underlying theory is that knowledge affords us the power to do more of the things we consciously want to do, and fewer of the things we were participating in without our explicit and informed consent. Basically, I believe that knowledge and conscious thought enable purposeful and intentional action. In addition, managers are required to justify what they do and why they do it in their business. My intention was to encourage students to question what they do in their personal and professional lives and take sustainable actions where appropriate and necessary. As a result, the objective of this study was to document students’ experience with personalizing sustainability and taking action in their personal and professional lives. I wanted to see whether bringing actions down to the individual level encouraged and enabled them to understand and apply sustainability thinking; or whether the value-laden aspects of this pedagogical approach are too alienating, forcing them to withdraw from learning completely.

Therefore, my null hypothesis (H0) – that I was hoping to reject – was that making sustainability personal would alienate students such that they would take the personal stance of not caring about sustainability, and therefore not learning anything during the class.

My alternate hypothesis (HA) – that I was hoping to be unable to reject – was that making sustainability personal would enable students to understand how sustainability related to them in their lives, and therefore care about sustainability enough to learn about what being sustainable involves, and to take action in their personal and professional lives.

Course Structure and Outcomes

Sustainability is a required course offered in the second semester of the part-time MBA program. It is a twelve-week course, meeting for three and half hours on one evening each week. The part-time MBA program is a 24-month cohort program tailored for working professionals with an average age of 35 years’ old, twelve years’ work experience, and four years’ management experience (Simon Fraser University, 2018). There were 47 students in my class from a variety of non-profit and for-profit organizations. Nineteen students in the class were female; and 28 were male.

The course was structured to introduce the notion of personal responsibility for and engagement in sustainability, with the intention of building up “self-knowledge” (Burns, 2016: 2), critical thinking skills (Allio, 2005); and an understanding of how we can (continue to) make positive impact. The topics covered in the course related to:

  • Why do we care about sustainability?
  • Who is involved in sustainability?
  • What does sustainability entail?
  • How is sustainability achieved?
  • What actions can you take personally and professionally?

To prepare students for the assignments and to set expectations in advance, detailed breakdowns were provided through the class’s web portal more than a month before the start of class. The focus on personal responsibility – provided in the course outline and emphasized in the first class – was chosen to enable students to become sustainability leaders by carefully and deeply thinking about their actions and the implications of their actions (Burns, 2016; Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 1993). To this end, I chose David Mackay’s “Sustainable energy – Without the hot air” (2008), as the textbook for the course because it provided students with a relatively easy set of everyday items that contributed to climate change, and a relatively simple way for them to calculate the ecological impact of their actions. Students were also provided with a number of core (primarily news) articles to read and videos to watch, to assist with understanding their personal and professional impact, and how to quantify this impact. A more extensive list of optional readings was provided for those with particular interest in delving more deeply into the content.

The course centred around 3 key assignments:

  1. A personal Impact Assessment, for which students had to track their consumption and usage of everything – food, transportation, energy, etc.) for 2 weeks and calculate the social and environmental impact of this on the planet; and then create
  2. An Action Plan, for which students had to say what they would DO based on their assessment; and
  3. A group assignment, which required that students design and present strategic recommendations to the senior leadership of the University about how to pursue and advance sustainability in the University’s operations and across its programs.

Classes were structured around exercises that required discussion, research, presentations and debates. Both individual and group assignments, and in-class exercises were created to empower students to bring together all their learning and make decisions about how to act more sustainably. The intention behind all course content was to reveal the impact of the decisions that we as humans make; and to show that the ways of fixing the problems are not defined or clear; but they ARE actionable. The intention was to show that there are a multitude of ways to behave sustainability immediately, but each way starts with understanding the ramifications of our current behaviour, determining what different outcome we want to achieve, and how we want to personally be involved in achieving that outcome. Sustainability is a journey; not a destination. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker’s words, the course was structured to show that leaders break new ground and do the right things to be more sustainable; while managers prefer to follow peers and do established things right, even if these things are not sustainable (Drucker, 2008).

Individual assignments required that the students begin to gather data in the first or second week, and analyze this data throughout the semester, with the insight of why and how to enact more sustainable behaviours. At the same time, the students were working in groups in class to discuss the different aspects of sustainability, and working on their group assignment to propose an organizational sustainability strategy for the University that would affect them as stakeholders (both during and after their MBA program).

The individual assignments were due only after the end of the semester, but the work involved in completing the assignments required ongoing learning, assessment and engagement throughout the semester. The rationale for making the due date for the assignments at the end of the course (rather than mid-way through the semester) was that students’ measurements (assessed by them throughout the semester), class discussions and reflections and strategic decision making (based on what to do about these assessments of their own personal and professional lives) were designed to enable students to understand and decide what they wanted to and felt they could/ should do about sustainability immediately and in the future.

Furthermore, I called upon the help of a senior lecturer in the University’s design school (the School of Interactive Arts and Technology) to teach the students skills to visually display their personal impact analysis and action plan for the purposes of making and articulating their decisions and actions. As a design instructor, he focused on teaching students how quality data visualizations must display information to enable and explain decision-making, instead of teaching student to measure specific things or follow prescribed formatting templates. He had, in the past, asked his students to develop graphical representations of their environmental footprint analyses which I had had the opportunity to observe. Based on this, I believed strongly that inviting him to help my students would help achieve two goals:

  1. It would demonstrate that the exercise of calculating one’s environmental footprint was a recognized activity conducted by other instructors across the University. Visualizing students’ environmental footprint was a not a shaming exercise, but a legitimate way of bringing sustainability to a personal and personally-actionable level. In addition, collating useful data was critical to communicating this information in a clear and impactful way to facilitate decision-making; and
  2. This would show the students that there was no prescribed format nor was there a template for the content of their consumption/ impact assessment – that this was for them to determine. For example, there was no defined expectation that they assess their CO2emissions, or disclose what they bought or discarded. What students tracked and reported, and how they reported this was up to them. The class was not set out to prescribe actions that individuals shouldor musttake to become more sustainable. The course was designed to enable the students to explore their own actions in an effort to become more aware of many of the things we take for granted every day. The course laid out the responsibility we place in the hands of government, corporations, and individuals with the intention of exposing many of the assumptions that humans make, and things we take for granted, as consumers, citizens and business executives/ leaders. Then, students were expected to choose for themselves whether they wanted to change anything in their lives or jobs. But most importantly, they decide why they wanted to change anything, if they chose to make changes.

Methodology, Data Collection, and Analysis

In order to determine whether making sustainability personal resulted in alienatingstudents from caringabout sustainability and therefore preventing them from learninganything about sustainability, my study involved: qualitative analysis of in-class observations and the two major individual assignments; qualitative and quantitative analysis of a post-pre survey; and quantitative analysis of students’ ratings of how much they professed to care about sustainability (please see Appendix A for the survey instrument).

The qualitative component of this research has its foundations in grounded theory (Charmaz, 2005; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Glass & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990; 1998). This means that I did not start the study with any pre-determined/ defined idea of what I would see from students. I did not know exactly what alienation, caring or learningwould look like, if and when these things happened. “The abductive nature of grounded theory has been critical in allowing us to determine patterns as they emerge from the data to form a working hypothesis with criteria for analyzing the data that is solely based on the student experience rather than constructed a priori. In this way we have allowed the data to speak to us” (Hill & MacDonald 2016: 58).

This required that my research assistant and I observed all class discussions, making notes of interactions between and with students, making..

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Norton JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

JSE April 2019 General Issue Table of Contents

Abstract:  Household composting is a practical sustainable behavior which should be further investigated. The Short Composting Survey was developed for use during the Compost Project pilot study to measure the knowledge, values, barriers, and social norms surrounding composting (n=25). The purpose of this research was to describe the testing and refining of the survey tool for the pilot study. Statistical analyses included calculating the Index of Item-Objective Congruence (IIOC) values and conducting a confirmatory factor analysis following administration of the survey. Nine respondents assisted with survey tool development by completing the IIOC, and values ranged from 0.29 to 0.66 which indicated that all of the survey questions matched more than one construct. The factor analysis resulted in a three-factor solution with a cumulative loading of 71.2%, meaning that these identified factors contributed 71.2% of the variance in responses. Factor 1 (“Values”) proved to be the strongest factor, explaining 36.6% of the variance, whereas Factor 2 (“Social Norms”) explained 20.04%, and Factor 3 (“Barriers”) had 14.6%. This survey may be useful for future food composting and sustainability-related research efforts. 

Keywords: Composting, survey, food sustainability, confirmatory factor analysis




Efforts to address reducing food waste are needed in all community settings, including schools and workplaces. Household approaches include freezing leftovers, donating unopened packages to food banks, using vegetable scraps for soup stocks, and minimizing fresh produce purchases to what can reasonably be consumed within a certain time frame (EPA, 2017). Even if community members attempt to minimize their food waste by following these recommendations, a certain amount of waste is inevitable. 

In 2010, food waste was 31 percent of the food supply, which was equivalent to 133 billion pounds (an average of 218.9 pounds of food waste per person was sent to a landfill) (EPA, 2017). Thus, in September 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal (EPA, 2017). The federal government is aiming to reduce food waste by 50% to 66 billion pounds by 2030 (EPA, 2017). If successful, the benefits of this reduction would include reduced methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, from organic materials decomposing at landfill sites and less money spent on wasted food (EPA, 2017). If an individual can’t reduce food waste by following the recommendations outlined above, then composting is a reasonable method for redirecting the waste from landfills (EPA, 2017). 

Composting effectively recycles organic food scraps into usable soil, and it can be done under aerobic or anaerobic conditions. At the household level, food scraps can be collected in a small container and then added to an outdoor bin or pile, fed to red wiggler worms living in a worm bin, or placed into a shallow trench and buried under soil. Community efforts to live sustainably through such approaches as composting and reducing food waste can be aided by the development of survey tools assessing the knowledge, attitudes, and perceived barriers surrounding the practice of composting. 

Research regarding composting interventions and their associated survey tools is limited. Therefore, it is the intent of this study to develop, pilot, and analyze the results from a short composting survey for use in future studies. As researchers develop new survey tools, a process such as the Index of Item-Objective Congruence (IIOC) may prove useful. The IIOC helps researchers determine if an item (survey question) can be matched to a particular concept, as described by Crocker and Algina (1986). 

After piloting a new survey, confirmatory factor analysis may assist researchers in evaluating how well the survey tool measures the constructs of interest. Initial versions of the survey tool can be adjusted based upon participant feedback, and the next iteration of the tool can be applied to a different group of participants. If a survey question does not adequately match the construct, it can be discarded in favor of a more appropriate choice. The survey validation process assists researchers in developing tools that accurately measure their constructs of interest. 

Factor analysis may be applied to a new survey tool as a method of exploring response patterns and looking for “common components among multiple dependent items” (Crocker & Algina, 1986, p.305). Gorsuch explains the goal of factor analysis as follows: “to summarize the interrelationships among the items in a concise but accurate manner as an aid in conceptualization” (1983, p.2). A tool’s intended constructs are considered factors contributing to an understanding of the tool’s object of interest. For example, a tool designed to assess participants’ attitudes surrounding physical activity behaviors might include such factors as perceived benefits and barriers, interest in various physical activities, and time spent outdoors. 

Factor analysis helps a researcher determine how well a given set of items addresses the intended construct or constructs. When conducting a factor analysis, the researcher loads factors in the model to look for the “degree of generalizability” between factors (Gorsuch, 1983, p.3). Factor loadings can vary in value from -1 to 1, with values that approach -1 and 1 indicating the item has a strong relationship with the construct, and values approaching zero indicating the item appears unrelated to the construct (Deviant, 2017). 

Communalities are also reported for the items, which refers to the “portion of [their] variance that is associated with variance on the common factors” (Crocker & Algina, 1986, p.295). These values range from 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect correlation) (Crocker & Algina, 1986). Items with communalities below 0.20 should be removed from the factor analysis because their posited items (as addressed) have less in common with the other factors, meaning that these items are less useful for the tool’s purpose (Yong & Pearce, 2013). 

Participant responses are used to analyze the tool’s function via either exploratory or confirmatory factor analysis. Researchers should choose an exploratory factor analysis (EFA) when they have not yet determined the structure of the data or the number of dimensions to the items (Gorsuch, 1983). In the case of a CFA, the researchers already have an idea about the data structure and the number of dimensions to the items (Gorsuch, 1983). 

Two outputs from factor analysis include the Eigenvalue and the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) test values. The Eigenvalue represents “the number of original values [concepts] that are associated with that factor,” and they are grouped into related factors (Crocker & Algina, 1986, p.296). This value assists the researcher in determining how many factors should be retained (Yong & Pearce, 2013). If the researcher decides to follow “Kaiser’s criterion,” all factors above an Eigenvalue of one are retained (Yong & Pearce, 2013, p.85). The KMO test measures how suitable the data is for factor analysis (Deviant, 2017). Values range from zero to one: values between 0.8 and 1.0 indicate the data is adequate for a factor analysis (Deviant, 2017). Values less than or equal to 0.6 mean a factor analysis should not be conducted, although some researchers allow for values greater than or equal to 0.5 (Deviant, 2017). If the KMO value is near zero, then widespread correlations exist and a factor analysis should not be conducted (Deviant, 2017). In such cases, participant responses indicate that a tool’s items are each addressing more than one construct (i.e. split loadings). The purpose of this research is to describe the testing and refining of the short composting survey tool used as part of a brief, supportive compost education intervention on a college campus. 


Pilot Study

The Compost Project was a brief pilot study conducted during the Fall 2017 quarter at Central Washington University (CWU) (results not published). This pilot study was designed to evaluate the effect of supported home composting on fruit and vegetable intake. The researchers developed the Short Composting Survey for use during the project in order to measure attitudes and behaviors around food and composting. Twenty-five participants were initially enrolled in the study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 33 years old, 24 were students, and one participant was a recent graduate from CWU; faculty members and nutrition students were excluded from the study. This article relates the testing and refining of the tool during the pilot, with potential implications for future food and sustainability-related research efforts.

Short Composting Survey

At the initial study orientation meeting, participants were asked to complete the Short Composting Survey. The Short Composting Survey, a brief, researcher-developed tool, was designed to measure the aforementioned targets by asking about composting and food preparation behaviors. The results described within this article are based on the responses of participants to this initial application of the tool.  

The researchers developed the Short Composting Survey for this study due to the lack of a validated survey tool pertaining to eating habits and composting. After writing the initial items, nine college-educated individuals completed the IIOC Rating Form for Composting. Following data collection, confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was conducted to determine if the survey tool appropriately measured the concepts of values, barriers, and social norms as they related to composting and food. 

Statistical Analysis

The confirmatory factor analysis was conducted with a computer with SPSS software (version 24). 


The IIOC was calculated for each item on the IIOC Rating Form discussed above and using the following formula:

Iik = ____N____k – µ)

2N -2

To solve for the formula above, N is the number of constructs, μk refers to the respondents mean rating of item i on a particular construct (k), and µ is the respondents’ mean rating of item i on all of the constructs (Crocker & Algina, 1986). 

Table 1: IIOC Results

Item Construct Index of Congruence
Thinking about what’s typical for you, how often do you compost your kitchen scraps? Behavior 0.66
Thinking about what’s typical for you, how often do you prepare meals in your kitchen? Behavior 0.65
Thinking about what’s typical for you, how often do you visit a garden that grows food? Behavior 0.44
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: I don’t have time to compost.  Barriers 0.58
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: I don’t have room to compost. Barriers 0.53
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: compost smells bad.  Barriers 0.29
Paper towel rolls can be composted.  Knowledge 0.54
Plastic bags can be composted. Knowledge 0.53
Onion skins can be composted. Knowledge 0.59
Rate how important it is to you that composting reduces the environmental impact of garbage.  Values 0.62
Rate how important it is to you that composting recycles kitchen scraps into garden soil.  Values 0.62
Rate how important it is to you that if people composted, we could keep about half of our garbage out of landfills. Values 0.53
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: My friends think composting is a good idea.  Social Norms 0.54
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: Many people I know like to compost.  Social Norms 0.56
Rate your level of agreement for this statement: Many people I know visit a community garden.  Social Norms 0.43

Before the confirmatory factor analysis, a KMO test was applied to the data to determine if such analysis was appropriate. The KMO test value was 0.503, indicating its suitability for factor analysis (based on a value greater than 0.5). Bartlett’s test of sphericity (p<0.0001) produced significant results, which suggests that the data has “patterned relationships” (Yong & Pearce, 2013, p.88). If Bartlett’s test results are non-significant, then the items are not sufficiently related to each other for a factor analysis to be applied to the data set (IBM, 2018). 

A CFA was conducted on the data using a Varimax rotation with a Kaiser Normalization. According to Yong and Pearce, “factors are rotated [around an axis] for better interpretation since unrotated factors are ambiguous” (Yong & Pearce, 2013, p.84). The Varimax rotation is an orthogonal approach which decreases the presence of high loadings and minimizes small loadings, in effect reducing the likelihood that a researcher will report an erroneous factor structure (Yong & Pearce, 2013). Kaiser Normalization suggests retaining all factors with an Eigenvalue above one (Yong & Pearce, 2013). 

This analysis resulted in a three-factor solution with a cumulative loading of 71.2%, meaning that these identified factors contributed 71.2% of the variance in responses. The individual Eigenvalues for the three factors were each greater than one, above the Kaiser’s Normalization threshold for determining meaningful contribution. The scree plot contained three points above an Eigenvalue of one, which supported the conclusion that the tool addresses three factors. 

Factor 1 (“Values”) proved to be the strongest factor, explaining 36.6% of the variance, whereas Factor 2 (“Social”) explained 20.04%, and Factor 3 (“Barriers”) had 14.6% (Table 2). To determine which results are significant (i.e. which factors appear to be meaningful), the researchers conducting a factor analysis must set a cut-off value for factor loadings (Yong & Pearce, 2013). Using a cut-off value of 0.60, four out of nine items (addressed by items 1 through 4) loaded moderately or highly on Factor 1. Factor 2 was represented in two moderately loaded items (6 and 7), and Factor 3 in only one item (Table 2). Two items, as addressed by items 5 and 8, loaded below the cut-off value of 0.60. 

If the cut-off value is moved to 0.50, Factor 1 is linked to seven out of nine items (1 through 6 and 8), Factor 2 to four (items 2, 6, 7, and 8), and Factor 3 to two (items 4 and 9). There are a number of split loadings in the data, in which items load at “0.32 or higher on two or more factors” (Yong & Pearce, 2013, p.84). Using the lower cut-off value of 0.50, items 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 all have split loadings. This finding indicates that the factors themselves are interrelated and factor identification may be more difficult, meaning that further refinement may improve the tool’s usefulness. 

Table 2: Confirmatory Factor Analysis Results

Item Description F1: Values F2: Social F3: Barriers Communalities
1 Composting keeps half of garbage out of landfills. 0.777 0.379 -0.283 0.827
2 Many people I know like to compost. -0.721 0.510 0.185 0.814
3 Composting recycles kitchen scraps into garden soil. 0.708 0.233 -0.128 0.572
4 I don’t have room to compost. 0.681 0.026 0.532 0.747
5 Compost smells bad. 0.538 -0.260 -0.065 0.361
6 Composting reduces the environmental impact of garbage. 0.554 0.617 -0.446 0.887
7 My friends think composting is a good idea. -0.327 0.604 0.398 0.630
8 Many people I know are involved with a community garden. -0.550 0.573 -0.402 0.792
9 I don’t have time to compost. 0.444 0.451 0.614 0.778
Eigenvalue 3.292 1.804 1.314
Variance explained (%) 36.577 20.046 14.603
Cumulative percentage (%) 36.577 56.623 71.226

Item 6 has the highest communality at 0.887, followed by items 1 at 0.827 and 2 at 0.814, respectively. Gorsuch refers to communality as the “proportion of its variance that can be accounted for by the common factors” (1983, p.29). Applying this definition to the results listed above, 88.7% of the variance for item 6 is due to the “common factors” and the remaining variance is unique (11.3%) (Gorsuch, 1983, p.29). Therefore, 11.3% of the unique variance of item 6 cannot be attributed to the common factors; rather, it is attributed to factors outside this model. In addition, 82.7% of the variance for item 1 and 81.4% of the variance for item 2 are due to the “common factors,” with the remaining 17.3% and 18.6%, respectively, being unique (Gorsuch, 1983, p.29). 


Survey tool development is a complex, intentional, and iterative process, and it may be aided by sought feedback as well as focused analyses including IIOC and CFA. During development of the Short Composting Survey, the researchers decided to focus on the following constructs: perceived benefits and barriers, value and importance, subjective norms, and knowledge about composting. The IIOC results indicated that all of the questions written for the survey measured more than one construct, meaning they should be revised before administration. With regard to the factor analysis, the low factor loadings on items 5 and 8 indicated that these items should be removed from the next version of the survey, whereas items 1, 2, and 6 should be retained due to their high communalities.

In the results from the IIOC, the low index of congruence for the item, “Rate your level of agreement for this statement: compost smells bad,” was particularly compelling. The calculated index of congruence of 0.29, meaning that this item was not congruent with the barrier category, indicated that the nine pre-pilot respondents did not think that the concept of “compost smelling bad” was actually a barrier to composting. The nine respondents may have been better informed than the anticipated study participants, or their views may be in agreement with most peoples, thus making odor a less salient barrier to composting.

During evaluation of the CFA factor loadings, the researchers found it helpful to choose a higher cut-off value of 0.60 rather than a lower value of 0.50 in order to assign significance to results above the higher value. There are fewer split-loadings at the higher value, and two items (5 and 8) are below the cut-off value. Item 5 (“Compost smells bad”) does not appear to address a true barrier to composting for the participants. During the initial IIOC analysis, Item 5 was assigned to the barrier category due to the assumption that the smell of decomposing organic materials inside the house would be a deterrent for most people. The factor loading of Item 5 within the barrier factor was quite low (-0.065), indicating that the smell of compost was not a deterrent for our participants. The next version of the Short Composting Survey should omit this item, as it doesn’t appear to be a barrier to composting (at least to the current study’s participants). 

Item 8 is also below the cut-off value (“Many people I know are involved with a community garden”). This item has moderate-value split loadings across all three factors, indicating that it appears to measure several concepts. Due to the ambiguous nature of this item, it would be appropriate to remove it from the next version of the survey. Items 1, 2, and 6 have the highest communalities among all nine items (0.827, 0.814, and 0.887 respectively). These high values indicate that most of the variance for all three constructs can be attributed to the common factors (ie values, social, and barriers). These three items should be retained for the next version of the survey, as they have the most relevance to the constructs of interest. 


Due to the limitations of the Compost Project and the potential value of a useful tool in filling a gap in the literature, this paper focused on the IIOC and CFA conducted during development and analysis of the Short Composting Survey. The main strength of this study was the focused nature of the analysis. Future versions of this tool should be tested with participants from non-university populations (i.e. community gardeners, schoolchildren, homeowners, etc.). Researchers may add new questions to the Short Composting Survey, request qualitative responses to specific questions, and retain the most clearly useful questions from the existing survey. Sustainability measurement tools can be administered in many different settings and populations, and they may help researchers develop educational and other..

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Harbour – JSE April 2019 General Issue PDF

Abstract: This paper describes and explains findings from an exploratory, interpretative qualitative case study that examined how a residential graduate program in science education, based in a wilderness area, supported the development of citizen educators. Data collection over a three-year period included 16 in-depth interviews with administrators, faculty, and graduate students; observations of class activities and campus community meetings; and document analysis of curriculum materials. Analysis of the data revealed how the culture of the campus community encouraged students to become citizen educators.

Keywords: civic education, higher education, field education, democratic citizenship



 Fifty years ago, the Valley Science Academy (VSA) was established in Taylor, a small quiet town that borders a large wilderness area in the western United States. (Pseudonyms are used to protect participant confidentiality.) When VSA began, it delivered one-week, field-based, science education courses for area high school students. Within just a few years, VSA incorporated as a non-profit educational organization, opened a residential K-12 school, an eco-tourism program, a conference center, and an in-service teacher development institute.

Today, Taylor welcomes visitors from around the world and the area offers a wide range of recreational activities. The region has a long ski season and a summer and fall ideal for hiking and backpacking. Expensive vacation homes pocket the canyons and valleys that branch out from the base of the majestic mountain range just west of Taylor. The VSA Main Campus, located on the outskirts of the town, is organized around new facilities that in design and construction appear similar to the welcome centers at western ski resorts. A second VSA campus, the rustic, smaller Canyon Campus, is located at the end of a box canyon in the adjacent wilderness area. The wilderness and the surrounding ecosystem are beautiful but also potentially dangerous. The region is home to wild megafauna and during the long winter, large parts of the region are routinely closed because road travel is dangerous and sometimes impossible.

In addition to the programs listed above and as a part of its regular Canyon Campus programming, VSA offers the first year of a Master of Science (M.S.) program in science education. Students enrolled in the program live, work, and study at the Canyon Campus. Enrolled as a cohort, graduate students complete nine courses over a calendar year and earn 32 credit hours. They also assist in the delivery of two-day science courses to visiting public school students. The graduate program began in the early 1990s and has a national reputation for producing well-trained, talented, and highly motivated educators. Admission to the program is selective and the tuition is high. Most students who complete the first-year program at the Canyon Campus finish their M.S. degree at partnering universities across the nation. Most of these then teach in public or independent schools. Some enroll in Ph.D. programs, usually in the natural sciences. Other M.S. graduates work as professional staff for non-profits (e.g., land trusts) and public-sector organizations (e.g., state wildlife and conservation agencies).

VSA administrators and faculty were explicit in stating that the graduate program was focused on education and science, not advocacy. Although the curriculum directly addressed the importance of sustainability, it did not advocate for policy solutions. As VSA administrators explained, the organization’s stated mission was to connect people with nature and their community. The VSA graduate program was also committed, however, to a specific pedagogy and this was place-based education (Gruenewald, 2003a, 2003b; Hill & Brown, 2014; Sobel 2004; Theobald, 1997). Sobel (2004) observed that thoughtful place-based educators create learning activities that incorporate educational objectives grounded in places relevant to the lives of their students.  Gruenewald (2005) described place-based education as “the process of connecting learners and their teachers through direct experience, reflection and action to the geographically specific cultural and ecological dimensions of community life” (p. 263).

In addition to providing a graduate level, place-based, field science education program, VSA faculty expected graduates to be engaged “citizen educators” prepared to lead in the community when their expertise was relevant to the issues before them. As June, a VSA senior administrator told me, the graduate program was committed to building “citizen action skills and experience… through knowledge of place, knowledge of self.” Oliver, a senior VSA faculty member, added that one of the program’s goals was to create “change agents, that is, people who are going to be leaders, educators, active citizens.” Joe, another administrator justified this goal by noting that, “We live in a democratic society and living in a democratic society requires engaged active citizens who are willing to understand communities – small and large – and act within those communities.” VSA administrators and faculty agreed, therefore, that an important outcome for the graduate program was to prepare highly effective place-based educators and field scientists who would also live and work in their community as engaged citizen educators.

When I asked how VSA developed these citizen educators the faculty said they observed this capacity under construction in class exercises. But, they acknowledged, the program’s courses were primarily focused on instructional methods and field science. The more important factor contributing to this development, they agreed, was the overall experience students shared while living together for a year in a small wilderness community.

VSA had data to confirm that the Canyon Campus culture encouraged students to become citizen educators. When I reviewed the results from a recent survey of graduate program alumni, I observed that just over 100 respondents commented on their experience at the Canyon Campus. Overall these respondents indicated that they were now significantly engaged in their community. They said their experience at VSA made them more effective in their roles as teachers, civic leaders, community organizers, public officials, land managers, and conservation agents. And, they attributed this capacity to their year-long experience of living, working, and studying at the remote Canyon Campus. But, I wondered, how was this capacity developed? When I spoke with VSA graduate faculty about this, they struggled to provide a detailed account of this phenomenon. They said it just seemed to happen. What I wanted to know, therefore, was how did the Canyon Campus experience encourage students to become engaged citizen educators in their community?

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework for this research was constructed from empirical findings and conceptual insights reported in the literatures of citizen engagement, civic education, and place-based education.  This framework balanced the need to enter the research with a baseline understanding of why civic education has become a critical priority but also how it might be addressed in nontraditional settings like those found in the VSA graduate program.

Citizen Engagement

Social scientists report that America is suffering from a decline in citizen participation in political and community affairs (e.g., Kanter & Schneider, 2013; National Task Force on Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement, 2012; Putnam, 2015; Skocpol, 2003). For example, among the world’s democracies, “the United States ranks 139thin voter participation” (The National Task Force, 2012, p. 1). During 2010, only 10 percent of adults contacted a public official (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). This low level of political engagement varies among different groups of Americans. Older and college-educated Americans are more engaged than younger Americans and those with only a high school diploma (Putnam, 2015). Americans growing up in low-income families tend to be less engaged than those growing up in middle or high-income families.

Some researchers have argued that participation in the political life of communities is not easily measured, so generalizations based on age, education, and class should be offered cautiously (e.g., Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins, & Delli Carpini, 2006). Still, it appears Americans are becoming less aware of local political issues and less knowledgeable about how people in other groups live (Putnam, 2015). This can lead to cultural isolation, polarization, and the risk of viewing others or “out-groups” as a threat (Mason, 2018).

Civic Education

Traditionally, in the United States, public schools were where students learned about American democracy and public issues and problems (Putnam, 2015). Yet, as The National Task Force (2012) reported, cuts to public education during the first decade of the 21stcentury led to elimination of high school civics courses in half of the states. Today, only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics (or American Government) in a public high school curriculum (Shapiro & Brown, 2018). Additionally, because the quality of a public education is closely linked to the social and economic well-being of the community, students from low-income families often do not have many opportunities to experience advocacy, negotiation, and compromise in instructional or extra-curricular settings designed to facilitate growth (Putnam, 2015). American higher education institutions are facing their own challenges in preparing students for an active role in their democracy.

At American colleges and universities, civics education is frequently subordinated to other priorities such as STEM education or the development of vocational skills. Civics courses are often treated as an “afterthought” in curriculum development (Boyte, 2015a). Colleges and universities have some responsibility for these problems. The academic terminology of civic education is confusing and undermines efforts to advocate for funding to support such initiatives (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). In the higher education literature “civic engagement” may refer to instructional strategies or educational programs (Boyd & Brackmann, 2012). Fortunately, some clarity is now emanating from the scholarship. Three broad categories of institutionalized civic education are now commonly acknowledged (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011).

“Civics coursework” typically takes two forms. First, civics may be taught in traditional credit-bearing courses focusing on government institutions. These courses, usually offered by Political Science faculty, examine the history and development of the federal and state legislatures, executive branches, and judiciaries. Second, coursework across the disciplines may incorporate a service learning component where students serve at a public or nonprofit agency such as school or foodbank (e.g., Ricke, 2018). Students engaged in service learning often have direct experience with people caught at the intersection of structural inequalities and the policies attempting to mitigate them (e.g., Tinkler, McGann, & Tinkler, 2017).

“Civic engagement programs” are commonly organized as a part of undergraduate majors and build on student learning in coursework but then go beyond this to study complex community problems transcending specific disciplines (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). These programs usually privilege the institution in community partnerships. They assume “the experts” reside at the university, not in the community. Knowledge is produced by academics and then applied in the field. Engagement may be sustained but it is apolitical. This means academics often adopt a positivist, neutral, technical approach to problem solving, in service to the community.

“Democratic engagement” initiatives offer a new and more balanced collaborative approach to student learning and community problem solving (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Participants acknowledge that experts may be on campus or in the community. Problems are identified collaboratively and knowledge is co-created. Engagement is sustained over an extended period of time, not limited by the academic calendar. And, the outcomes of engagement are ambitious; the shared work is intended to serve as an opportunity for student learning, community improvement, and as a critical step towards building “an inclusive, collaborative, and deliberative democracy” (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011, p. 22).

Each of these forms of civic education assumes that most important learning is a consequence of structured educational activities. Each approach assumes a socialization conception of civic education where students are prepared for insertion into an already existing political order and the primary goal is to teach them how to operate within that order (Biesta, 2011). We have long known that civic participation is a consequence of many different kinds of experiences. But, as Engbers (2016) observed, “little attention has been given to the diversity of institutions and community level policies that might influence civic and political participation” (p. 55).

Place-Based Education

Place-based educators design learning activities grounded in student experiences at specific places relevant to educational objectives (Sobel, 2004). Advocates of place-based education identify several benefits resulting from the effective use of this holistic pedagogy. It provides a concrete context for identifying problems or issues. Students understand how the problem or issue under study is relevant to real places and real people. Place-based education has served as a guiding construct for (a) outdoor education (Wattchow & Brown, 2011), (b) sustainability education (Warr Pedersen, Pharo, Peterson, & Clark, 2017), (c) ecological & environmental education (Orr, 2004; Thomashow, 1996), (d) urban education (Ward & Fryson, 1973), and (e) rural education (Theobald, 1997).

Regrettably, there is only limited dialogue between place-based education researchers and civic education researchers. And yet, as Gruenewald (2003b) observed, place-based pedagogies can help citizens learn how to advocate more effectively for “the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit” (p. 3). Accordingly, it appears likely that place-based education, which foregrounds the experiences of people, might be a valuable pedagogical complement to traditional American civic education which emphasizes the role of institutions in preparing citizens for political democracy (Boyte, 2015a).

Considered collectively, the findings and insights reported in the literature show that traditionally, public schools and higher education have been critical institutional resources in developing the skills, knowledge, and values that Americans rely on to participate in our democracy.  However, it is also apparent that the development of this capacity may be supported by a variety of experiences.  The research method designed for this study was informed by my theoretical framework but also open to findings grounded in the experiences of my participants and therefore distinct from those noted in the established literatures.

Methods and Data 

The research question guiding this inquiry was how did the Canyon Campus experience encourage students to become engaged citizen educators in their community?Because the focus of the research was on the experiences students shared while living, working and studying at the Canyon Campus, the method needed to facilitate the collection and analysis of a variety of data in order to ensure the complexity of the experiences and the setting could be captured.  Accordingly, I selected the interpretive case study method. This method is recommended to manage “an in-depth description and analysis of a bounded system” (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016, p. 40). My inquiry was naturalistic and I observed, studied, and approached participants in their daily settings over an initial two month period and then as needed to follow-up over the next two years (Patton, 2015).  I pursued authenticity and trustworthiness through reflexivity, triangulation, peer review, and thick rich description.

Data collection was carried out in the following manner. During a sabbatical leave, I lived at the Canyon Campus during the Fall of 2015. After acquiring IRB approval from my university and VSA, a sample of participants was nominated by the administrators and faculty I initially encountered. As I explain below, given the small size of the program (15 students and 13 VSA administrators and faculty), many students and most VSA personnel teaching in the program were participants.  I interviewed a total of 16 people; five administrators (each of whom also taught in the graduate program), five full-time faculty, and six graduate students.  Thirteen interviews were conducted over a two-month period at the Canyon Campus and three at the Main Campus in Taylor.  Each of these initial interviews was conducted face to face and in a private setting.  In each case, I began by explaining the study and inviting the participant to read and sign the consent form.  I then followed a semi-structured interview protocol.  These initial interviews were transcribed and then sent to the participant for member checking.  When I began to note saturation in the interview data, I paused this part of data collection.  Follow-up telephone and e-mail inquiries were conducted with seven participants during 2016.

During my residency at the Canyon Campus, and simultaneous with the interview process, I also observed faculty meetings, classroom activities, field trips, community meals, and community meetings. I carried out document analysis of curriculum, class handouts, and syllabi throughout the project. I completed extensive field notes on a daily basis to record my activities and observations along with my reflections. In July 2016 I returned to the Canyon Campus for three days of limited documentary data collection and shared tentative findings with a group of administrators and faculty. In 2017, I collected and analyzed additional documentary data from VSA administrators.

Framed by the research question, my initial analysis of transcripts and field notes was guided by qualitative case study methods (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016; Saldaña, 2014; Willig, 2014).  First cycle analysis (Saldaña, 2014) included descriptive coding (to identity topics), values coding (to capture norms and beliefs), and narrative coding (to note interpersonal experiences). Second cycle analysis (Willig, 2014) was primarily pattern coding and led to the identification and description of three categories and one emergent theme: The Ecology and Paradox of Engagement. This theme provided a foundation for my interpretation. My discussion of the ecology of engagement is presented in the Interpretation section of the paper. Discussion of the paradox of engagement appears in the Conclusion. Although not generalizable, the findings offer clues about how citizen engagement might be encouraged at programs similar to one offered at the Canyon Campus (Reichertz, 2014).


The findings reported were guided initially by my theoretical framework and developed through the use of the interpretative case study method.  These findings are presented in a manner and sequence that honors the perspectives of my participants.

During my residency at the Canyon Campus, 15 students were enrolled in the graduate program. They ranged in age from 22 years to 30. Ten of the fifteen students were women. Only one of the fifteen identified as a racial or ethnic minority. I interviewed six students, three women and three men. Also, 13 VSA administrators and faculty were working full or part time in delivering the graduate program. All were White. They ranged in age from 27 to 56. I interviewed 10 of these administrators and faculty, four women and six men. Interviews with 16 participants comprised most of the data collected and analyzed.

Three substantive categories were formed from an analysis of the data. The categories were (a) how the formation of citizen educators was encouraged, philosophically, (b) how the formation of citizen educators was encouraged in community activities, and (c) the graduate student perspective or how selected graduate students accounted for their engagement with past, present, and future communities.

How the Formation of Citizen Educators was Encouraged, Philosophically

Several participants indicated that the development of citizen educators was comprehensive and systematic. June, a senior administrator who had taught in the graduate program for more than 20 years, began by observing that the process of developing citizen educators was embedded “…in our systems, in our education, and in our culture.” June noted that given the wilderness setting of the Canyon Campus, everyone is expected to take responsibility for the welfare of the community. This encompassed cleaning up the dining area, doing laundry, and securing trash and recycling. It also included being alert to potential animal and weather adversities. June added that when she reflected on the community philosophy that transcends the entire organization,“I think about the really tangible ‘hands to work’ [philosophy] – you know, that we all have shared responsibility around caring for one another in the community.”One of the other VSA administrators, Joe, explained that the “hands to work” philosophy, adopted from the Shakers in New England, is based on the recognition that people become more committed to each other, the community, and their ideals if they work hard together to accomplish a shared objective. I observed this on a daily basis while living at the Canyon Campus. When work needed to be done, the expectation was that everyone would contribute time and effort to the project.

Engagement was also encouraged, philosophically because administrators and faculty believed that when individuals engage with others and places this establishes connections that make individuals wiser about their environment and the people they are working with but, also about themselves. One of the faculty, Oliver, explained that,

We’re connecting people to nature, as part of what we’re doing. But, we’re doing that with the intention that those people can learn from those connections. We do that through science, we do it through stewardship, we do it through education.  And, we send people out into the world who will be capable of connecting others to nature through science, through education, through stewardship. And, I think that people who do that are going to be engaged citizens.

Ronald, another instructor echoed this perspective when he stated,

And, so, explicitly, we talk about connection to place and this leads to engagement in place…  And, this, I would say, leads to decisions and informed engagement on a lot of the bigger challenges.  And, so,… it directly involves civic engagement as citizens.

Arnold concurred with his faculty colleagues when he explained,

So, not only do we want them [students] to learn about the dynamics of the place but, we want them to become immersed in the place and have meaningful experiences in the place. And, I think that through that lens, it’s somewhat natural for people to become engaged in their place or their community or something that they care about.

These data show that outside of any specific instructional activities, the development of citizen educators was promoted philosophically. 

How the Formation of Citizen Educators was Encouraged in Community Activities

My observations of VSA graduate program activities; analysis of curriculum documents; and interviews with administrators, faculty, and students revealed how the formation of citizen educators was also encouraged by community activities. For instance, this..

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