A service-learning approach to teaching research methods offers important lessons in campus sustainability.

Learning research methods doesn’t have to be boring, says David Conner, associate professor in UVM’s Department of Community Development and Applied Economics.  

Conner teaches CDAE 250: Applied Research Methods, a required course for all students majoring in community and international development at UVM. Rather than using a lecture-based format, Conner designed the course around a service-learning project, engaging students to apply the class concepts by conducting research for a community partner.

“We learn best when we learn by doing, and our community partners have important research needs,” said Conner. “I’ve found that the best way for students to become better producers and consumers of research is to actually go through the process of doing a research project from start to finish.”

Last fall, the class teamed up with the UVM Office of Sustainability to conduct a campus-wide survey evaluating students’ attitudes, awareness and behaviors around sustainability at UVM. The study both yielded insightful data, and served as an instrumental teaching tool to help students understand the research process.

“We really did every aspect of the research – starting with understanding the problem, then designing the survey, administering the survey and synthesizing the findings,” said Nathan Lantieri, a senior community and international development major.

At the end of the course, Lantieri and classmates Betsy McGavisk, Amanda Falkner and Bridgette McShea spent the next several months working with Conner on a manuscript about the results. Their paper published October 24 in the journal Sustainability. 

Applying the methods

UVM has been recognized for its leadership in sustainability. Most recently, it was named the #3 Top Green School by the Princeton Review and has been ranked in the top 12 percent of all rated institutions for its sustainability efforts as measured by STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System for higher education.

As part of UVM’s commitment, all students are required to take courses in diversity and sustainability. Twenty undergraduate Eco-Reps teach their peers about sustainable behaviors. The campus is powered by 100% certified renewable electricity, and 25% of food purchases are certified as local, organic, fair trade, or humanely raised. These and many other sustainability-related commitments have earned UVM a STARS Gold rating since 2014. 

Working with Conner’s class enabled the Office of Sustainability to connect with UVM’s teaching mission to capture important information about how the University’s sustainability efforts are perceived on campus, said UVM Sustainability Director Gioia Thompson.  

“We wanted to understand both what people knew, and how they felt. The students were instrumental in helping us define the issues, determining the right questions to ask and getting a strong survey response rate,” said Thompson. 

Before designing the survey, the students conducted a comprehensive literature review, as well as focus groups and observations of individual behaviors. The feedback informed the survey design, which included several questions measuring students’ sentiments and behaviors along a sliding scale, as well an open-ended question about sustainability at UVM.

For the next several weeks, the class fanned out across campus administering the survey at dining halls, libraries and student centers, and sent the survey link to friends and classmates. By the end of data collection, they had surveyed more than 700 undergraduate and graduate students.

“Dr. Conner places a big emphasis on both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the research,” said senior Betsy McGavisk, a community and international development major and co-author of the study published in Sustainability. “We learned best practices around conducting quality research and the hard skills like using statistical software programs and how to publish and disseminate the results.”

Student perceptions on campus sustainability

The survey showed UVM students have a strong understanding of sustainability as a concept and feel it is important to them and the University at large. On performance, students thought UVM was doing well in addressing environmental issues, but was not giving adequate attention to social and economic dimensions of sustainability.

“When people think about sustainability, they tend to think first about environmental issues,” said McGavisk. “Since our survey last fall, we have seen positive change around social justice issues, and students have worked really hard to make that happen. These efforts contribute to the sustainability of our campus, but aren’t necessary labeled as such.”

According to Conner and his student co-authors, campuses like UVM are increasingly placing sustainability at the center of their operations, but tend to under-communicate the societal and economic components of sustainability. The researchers suggest universities should strive to promote a more holistic and nuanced understanding of sustainability and more concrete initiatives to foster sustainable behaviors and culture.

“The research emphasized the importance of communication – coming both from our office, and through our partners. We’re always looking at sustainability as multidimensional, but that idea is not getting to students. The survey results show that students want UVM staff to make clear the links among social justice, ecological health and sustainable development in addressing topics that might otherwise be labeled ‘environmental,’ such as recycling and low-carbon transportation,” said Thompson.

Research to impact 

The UVM Office of Sustainability has had a long partnership with Conner and his course, whose research in past years has helped inform campus policies about ending bottled water sales and campus dining operations.

“Our campus is really a living laboratory in how we think about the realistic manifestations of sustainability. Engaging students in the process enables them to be exposed to the complexities involved in campus operations and policies,” said Caylin McCamp, education and outreach coordinator for the Office of Sustainability.

In 2013, driven by student activism, UVM became one of the first public universities to end the sale of bottled water on campus. As the initiative was being developed, Conner’s class conducted a similar campus-wide assessment of students’ beverage habits and opinions that informed the administration’s decisions on how best t­­o implement the policy.

“My hope is that my students see it as more than a class. First and foremost, I want what we learn to be used and for our community partners to take action,” said Conner.

­­As for Lantieri and McGavisk, the class has given them a new perspective on sustainability issues and has set them up for success in their next research endeavor – both are part of the UVM Honors College and are busy working on their senior theses.


Rachel C Leslie