Recapturing the learning opportunities of university sustainability indicators

Tulane University

Publication Release Date: Dec. 1, 2017
Date Posted: March 29, 2018
Submitted by: Jade Chalkley
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Springer International Publishing
Periodical Name: Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences
Type: Journal Article


Reconfiguring student involvement in university sustainability assessments and reporting can create important learning opportunities. In the 1990s, students conducted campus environmental audits and assessments, which were often the first step towards improving university environmental practices and creating sustainability programs. These audits, often conducted as class projects, capstone projects, or theses, gave students agency in a significant environmental issue, and they provided integrative, compelling, and collaborative environmental learning experiences. Today, university sustainability ratings and rankings are largely developed by organizations outside universities, with data provided by university sustainability staff and administrators. Hundreds of colleges and universities participate in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) administered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), posting information in 70 categories in public reports. Environmental Studies and Sciences (ESS) faculty and students can participate in the process of assessing university sustainability by producing their own sustainability indicator reports from the STARS data. A literature of sustainability indicators, particularly the work of Donella Meadows, describes indicators from a systems thinking perspective and explores how the selection of indicators can change system behavior by providing missing feedback or influencing a system’s goals. It describes an inclusive process for developing indicators to ensure they will be meaningful to the larger community. Students can use these theories and processes to critically evaluate sustainability data, to develop their own sense of the components of a sustainable institution or society, and to advance understanding of sustainability within their university community. Creating and communicating sustainability indicator reports for their particular university can provide an ongoing topic for ESS capstone courses.