Carbon Challenge: Footprint Reduction through Curricular Development and Community Building

Total Amount Awarded: $48,959

Final report poster or presentation: View the PDF

This interdisciplinary, multi-layered, and research-based project will create a campus-wide sustainability challenge involving a friendly and supportive competition between students, faculty and staff on the UW Tacoma campus to lose carbon weight. The competition, based on a successful pilot study (“UWT’s Biggest Loser”) conducted in autumn 2014, leverages social networks between students and their teachers that begin in the classroom and spread through the employment of “challenges” that students give to other members of the UW Tacoma community. The project as a whole begins with a workshop where ten participating faculty representing many divisions of the school of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences learn how to incorporate key concepts of sustainability into their course syllabi. Faculty will use their revised syllabi to participate in the campus challenge in autumn 2015: while they teach students core environmental concepts in the classroom, the students apply their knowledge in their everyday lives to lose carbon weight using standardized measurement tools.

The proposed project builds on the success of the pilot study and broadens the scope to include a research component. The initial study found that when students completed weekly writing assignments about their sustainable behavior they began to engage in deeper contemplation about environmental issues, including a perception of their own role in the continuance or resolution of these issues. As a result, during the “challenge” phase of the project, faculty will collect weekly reflections from the students about the environmental changes they are making in their lives on and off campus. Student coders will analyze the student reflections for key themes –including the “intellectual development scheme” developed by Perry (1970) for college students– as they relate to sustainable behavior and beliefs. Once the coding is complete, participating faculty will create collaborative research projects with other faculty and students that include presentations at national conferences and publications. The resulting data can be used in myriad ways: to identify barriers to specific environmental behaviors; to understand the role that reflection plays in making sustained environmental changes; and to build on existing research assessing the utility of social networks for sustainable change in academic settings.

This project meets the central goals of the University of Washington Climate Action Plan by: 1) significantly reducing the UW Tacoma community's carbon footprint by three million pounds; 2) potentially creating a successful model for the incorporation of sustainability principles into course curricula that can be applied by all three campuses; and 3) engaging faculty and students in collaborative research focused on sustainability.

Relevance to UW Sustainability Goals:

The primary intent of this project is for members of the UW Tacoma community to gain awareness of environmental issues and take individual action to lose carbon weight in a supportive and diverse academic environment that involves community connection and activism as its key strategies. As noted in the CAP 2010 update, the overarching goal of the plan is substantive carbon reduction as a consistent move “toward climate neutrality” (p. 3). This research- and teaching-based campus project supports this goal as well as many of CAP’s supporting strategies, including engaging UW students and faculty in conservation and sustainable behavior change and integrating formal and informal learning on sustainability. These goals will be accomplished in several different ways.

Reduction in Carbon Emissions. One of the core components of the project is to have students not only learn about pressing environmental problems but also to develop an individual sense of agency by taking steps to adopt more sustainable behavior. With ten faculty members participating –and with an average of 30 students per class– the potential carbon “weight loss” is significant (see “Background and Rationale” for information about carbon loss in the pilot study). Applying the trends from the pilot study, it is estimated that the project could result in over three million pounds of carbon emission reduction among the UW Tacoma community –depending on several factors like class size, the number of challengers, and faculty involvement. This type of emission would fall under “Scope Three” (p. 21) as outlined in the 2009 CAP describing “other” emissions not related to campus infrastructure/operations but for which the University wishes to take responsibility.

Academic Engagement in Climate Change. One of the stated goals of CAP is to foster sustainable change through cross-disciplinary academic engagement by students and faculty. Because this project is supported by faculty from many different academic disciplines –including Communication, Philosophy, Writing Studies, Environmental Science, Literature, and Environmental Studies– it directly encourages engagement from a diverse student cohort, and not simply those taking an environmental course or with environmental science or studies as their major. 

The CAP also calls for “exciting opportunities for involvement and commitment inside and outside the classroom” (p. 5). This project fulfills the CAP goal of innovative learning connected to action through a sense of personal responsibility, where students learn about environmental problems while taking individual action to adopt sustainable behavior. This is especially true since much of the learning process takes place as a form of friendly competition with other members of UW Tacoma – a strategy that encourages communication about sustainability across the campus. The sense of agency to solve complex environmental problems has been identified as a crucial component in individual adoption of sustainable behavior (Norgaard, 2011; Zwickle and Koontz 2014). 

A key element of this project is engagement with the larger community, which the CAP identified as a crucial component of sustainable behavior. UW Tacoma serves a diverse, largely non-traditional student body that comes from many backgrounds and different areas of our local community. The smaller campaign on which this project is built revealed that students who engaged in the “carbon campaign” actively attempted to expand their sphere of influence to create a community of sustainability –including their parents, teachers, fellow students, and partners/spouses. In addition, part of the current project involves community events – including nationally recognized speakers – to raise awareness of UW Tacoma’s activities.  As a result of the myriad potential community connections, this project has the clear potential to fulfill the intention of the CAP to build “bridges of activism that connect our academic and administrative communities in common interests” (2010, p. 5). 

Engaging Faculty and Students in Research. The CAP identifies three ways to involve students on an academic level in climate change awareness and action, including “formal learning, extracurricular/informal learning, and research” (p. 5). A central component of this project is based in research endeavors among faculty members, staff, and students in several areas, including the assessment of the success of incorporating sustainability principles in a diverse set of classrooms, student reflections on making sustainable changes in their lives inside and outside the classroom, and the role of reflection and contemplation in short- and long-term environmental behavioral change. A portion of the funds for this project are designated specifically for research and travel funds for students who work with faculty on this project. Thus, this campaign addresses CAP’s call to “develop a mechanism for connecting faculty and students in research projects of mutual interest” (p. 7).

Summary. This project is designed to directly promote sustainable behavior through shared learning and community connection in an academic environment. Students on the UW Tacoma campus will learn about environmental issues and will be active in developing a sense of personal agency about sustainable change. The emissions reduction falls under the category of “other” (eg, Scope 3) within the CAP; however, it is clear that the campus forming a community around the common goal of sustainability can and will lead to more plans and projects for direct emission reduction.


The project is designed to start in late spring 2015 with the faculty workshop and conclude in autumn 2016 with the final conference presentation. 

First milestone: In June 2015 faculty will attend the three-day workshop that teaches them how to incorporate key concepts of sustainability into their syllabi.  Bringing their syllabi to this workshop, faculty will hear from experts in sustainability practices as well as participate in work groups and brainstorming exercises to understand how their individual courses can incorporate not only the campus carbon challenge campaign but broad principles of sustainability. Another goal of this workshop is to have faculty co-create the important “reflection prompts” they will use on a weekly basis. Although each class is different, the prompts used for all students (across classes) will be standardized.  Thus, once the workshop concludes in June, the first key milestone of the project is that faculty will have their syllabi and reflection prompts ready well in advance for the campaign starting in autumn quarter. 

Second milestone: Implementation and completion of the campus-wide carbon-challenge campaign in autumn 2015.  During autumn quarter faculty will actively participate in the campaign phase.  Faculty will teach the principles of sustainability that they have incorporated into their syllabi while students will use that information to decrease their carbon footprint in their everyday lives. Faculty will collect the weekly reflection prompts while providing key feedback, encouragement, and support to students about the reflections. Midway through the quarter, a guest speaker will come to campus who will talk to the campus about principles of sustainability while providing encouragement and feedback to participating students, faculty, and staff. Thus, the second milestone is to complete the autumn campaign: a) having lost three million pounds of carbon weight as a campus while 2) collecting valuable data from students about barriers, challenges, and successes associated with positive environmental change in their individual lives.

Third milestone:  Assessment of the student reflection data. Student coders will analyze reflections for key themes collected in autumn 2015.  These data will be compiled and summarized in broad themes for faculty (please see Research Phase I under “Scope and Methodology” for more information).

Fourth milestone: Faculty gathering at the Whitely Institute in May of 2016 will have the opportunity to understand the broad themes in the student reflections and form research collaborations with other faculty and students.  It is anticipated that there will be many possible ways to approach the data, and so faculty will have access to the “raw data,” as all student reflections will be submitted digitally (and will be organized by class and week for participating faculty and student researchers).  

Fifth milestone: In this final phase, faculty and students will present the findings of their collaborative research at various national conferences, concluding the final phase of this project (please see “Research Phase III under “Scope and Methodology.” 

Timeline of the project in summary: The majority of the project – including the autumn 2015 campus campaign, data collection, and data analysis – will be complete by June 2016.  However, the substantive research focus of this project includes faculty-student presentation at several conferences, extending the completion date to late autumn 2016.  

Primary Faculty:
Ellen  Moore
Primary Staff:
John Burkhardt
Primary Student:
Tucker Baespflug

This project was funded during the 2014-2015 academic year.