Psychology department, student services partner to advance sustainable behaviors at ASU
Arizona State University is on track to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from building and waste-related sources by 2025. This is just one way ASU is working to meet the university’s sustainability goals.
One of the biggest challenges to becoming climate positive and sustainable is changing the behavior of the people who make up the university.
“Just addressing the physical structure of a building, for example by constructing LEED-certified buildings or adding solar panels, doesn’t address the actions of the people inside,” said Kendon Jung, a Coordinator for Educational Outreach and Student Services. In this role, he coordinates with many campus and student groups, and is also the Chair of the City of Tempe Sustainability Commission.
Jung added that many of the groups he works with, such as Changemaker Central, Undergraduate Student Government, Student Organizations, and the ASU Residential Hall Association, want to elevate their sustainable practices but frequently hit the same roadblocks. He noticed that groups approached sustainability by intensively publicizing information, like signage or awareness pushes, but eventually gave up because they weren’t seeing as much success as they hoped.
Jung approached Paul LePore, associate dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with a “pie in the sky idea.” He suggested creating an interdisciplinary course based on the idea of community members trying to change behaviors by removing structural or social barriers.
“My vision is an interdisciplinary model where psychology, marketing, design, engineering, and sustainability students come together to create community-based interventions for behaviors that we need on campus,” Jung said.
With LePore’s help, Jung’s pie-in-the-sky idea came to life in an ASU classroom last semester: Michelle “Lani” Shiota, associate professor of psychology, taught the “Sustainable Behavior Psychology Lab,” a seminar course for undergraduates. She and the students reviewed previous research on behavior change techniques, and then designed real interventions for ASU.
“Dr. Shiota’s course focusing on the psychology of sustainability and sustainable change is a terrific example of where we can harness the expertise of our faculty and the enthusiasm of our students to tackle real world problems,” LePore said. “We all have a role in lessening ASU’s carbon footprint — when the solutions are grounded in sound science, developed by our students in mentorship with our faculty, and are implemented as important elements of our university’s sustainability efforts, the impact of our work becomes that much more apparent.”
Students worked in teams to tackle different problems across the university, with support from Zero Waste at ASU, Residential Life, and Aramark, which provides dining services in the Residence Halls and Sun Devil Stadium. The students considered the constraints of the physical landscape while developing interventions to increase sustainable behaviors. The course concluded with the students presenting their interventions to Zero Waste at ASU and Aramark.
“This course was really a new approach for our department, but we relish the opportunity to innovate for a social benefit,” Shiota said. “We explored why it is so hard to change behavior, what the psychological mechanisms involved in successful behavior change are, and what specific strategies we might use to promote sustainability at ASU.”
An unexpected student experience
One of the students in the Sustainable Psychology course was ASU junior Shelby Weathers. She took the course because she is interested in how to better apply research and shape the world in a positive way. Weathers wants to pursue a doctorate in social psychology, and is currently studying abroad at the University of Zurich in Switzerland where she is working on a project focusing on immigration and social change.
“I was impressed by how much ASU wants to become more sustainable. All of the stakeholders like Zero Waste and Aramark were so happy to have our help and input,” Weathers said. “It was validating to see how much people care, and we saw first-hand how much impact our interventions could have at ASU.”
Another student, senior Susana Puga, took the course because she was interested in how people perceive the consequences of their actions. She said she particularly enjoyed exploring the intricacies of the university and learning about the hurdles the administration faces when trying to improve sustainability.
“My key takeaway was to keep going – keep moving that needle forward. It is so easy to get caught up in the challenge of sustainability, but it is also important to keep finding ways to innovate and make change work for everyone,” Puga said.
Shiota and her students learned that effective behavior change requires involving the community and appreciating the realities of the physical landscape.
“We all have ideas, but we can’t carry them out without the cooperation of stakeholders, which means forming solid partnerships and communication all the way through,” Shiota said. “It was just incredible to see the interdisciplinary teamwork across the university.”