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  Geotimes - November 2007 - Education and Outreach

Students Change Their Lifestyles
Nicole Branan

Sample questions from the Lifestyle Project Eco-Rating Quiz

Person buying food at a farmer's market
Lyra Spang
According to the Lifestyle Project, buying local food such as at farmers’ markets and using reusable shopping bags are simple, easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Students involved in the project say they have changed their lives in countless ways.

Mark Tillman is a 51-year-old hotel and restaurant owner and manager who used to live a self-professed “selfish American lifestyle,” was “very much set in his ways” and didn’t give much thought to what his habits were doing to the environment. But his outlook on life changed last summer when he enrolled in an online environmental geology class at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Part of the class was the Lifestyle Project, a three-week exercise that helps raise students’ environmental awareness by challenging them to modify their own lifestyles. By the end of the class, Tillman had thrown out every incandescent light bulb in his house, installed low-flow showerheads and had made it a habit to collect his family’s table scraps and other “biowaste” in an outside compost container. “The project was a life-changing experience,” he says. “It really opened my eyes to what I was doing to our planet and it caused a change in my thinking.”

And that’s just what the Lifestyle Project was designed to do: help students understand the kinds of adjustments that can be made to reduce their impact on the environment, says Karin Kirk, who developed the project 14 years ago when she began teaching at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The project has really taken off in recent years, however, thanks in part to a growing public discussion about climate change and personal responsibility. Throughout the three weeks, students reduce their impacts on the environment by changing the way they live from day to day. “These changes aren’t difficult, but they are significant,” Kirk says.

Kirk, who currently teaches at Empire State College and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., gives her students the Lifestyle Project’s ecological footprint quiz, an online test that calculates how much of Earth’s resources a specific lifestyle requires based on such factors as water and energy use, waste production and eating habits. After the quiz, students choose from different categories, such as transportation, energy use, water use, waste and diet, and make gradual changes to their habits (see sidebar). Specific rules exist for each category, such as turning down the heat three degrees or spending an entire day without producing any garbage. Each week the rules become more rigorous because students have to meet the requirements more often. For example, those who choose the “leave the car at home” category must not drive their vehicles on two days during the first week, three days during the second week and four days during the final week. “The idea is a gradual but definite change that follows a structure, rather than simply telling students to drive their cars less,” Kirk says. Students keep a journal with entries for each day.

The Lifestyle Project requires students to experiment and try something new, Kirk says. “I was somewhat apprehensive at first,” says Tillman, who decided to do his five-mile ride to work on a five-speed K-Mart bike that a hotel guest had left behind a couple of years ago. “But it turned out to be a lot of fun; my adventures during the bike rides were hilarious,” he says. “Who knew that my neighbor has a territorial German Shepherd who likes to chase bikes, that manure is a fertilizer that is spread, or that tractor-trailers create a back draft that wants to suck you up their tail pipes,” he says, laughing.

Since Kirk developed the project, numerous universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have adopted it. “The Lifestyle Project provides a much more effective way of learning than, for example, writing term papers does, because it affects students directly,” says Steven Earle of Malaspina University-College in Canada. “From my experience, looking stuff up and writing about it doesn’t necessarily get students thinking,” says Earle, who teaches the project as part of his environmental science courses. But the most important aspect of the project, he says, is that students realize that they play a role in the big picture. “I think everybody is in this deadlock position, thinking, ‘Yes, I could change the way I live but it wouldn’t make a difference.’” But throughout the three weeks, students learn that the little steps can have a big effect, he says.

“I realized that small changes do have an impact in the long-run,” says Dawn Grants, a student at Empire State College. “This project was really an eye-opener because it caused me to make conscious decisions every day about things that I normally didn’t think twice about.”

Because students work on the project at home, it reaches a wide audience that includes families, neighbors and friends. “Students often tell me that especially younger kids get really excited about the project and take on the role of the energy police in the house,” Earle says, adding that he encourages education majors to include the project in their elementary school classrooms.

Phillip Ortiz, area coordinator and mentor at Empire State College, says that he completed the project with his 10-year-old daughter at home. “She loved it,” he says. “Now, when I take her shopping for one of her friend’s birthday parties, she’ll say, ‘I don’t want to buy that, look at all the wrapping.’” Earle says he believes that universities have the responsibility to make a difference not just in their classrooms but in the communities as well. “This project is one way to do it.”

Surveys and feedback from students at different institutions have shown that many of them make their lifestyle changes permanent, Kirk says. But the project is not for everyone and teachers always offer an alternative. “You can’t make it strictly mandatory because students can’t be forced into making lifestyle changes,” she says.

Those students who choose to participate in the Lifestyle Project are often very enthusiastic about it. “When I first started it I thought that students would approach it in a half-hearted manner, with minimum attempt, just trying to fulfill the requirement and get the credit,” says Dexter Perkins, a professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, who uses the project in his environmental issues classes. “I was surprised to see that most of them got really engaged and worked hard at it.” Perkins says that the project also fits into the larger goal of training students to become independent thinkers. “In science education we are realizing more and more that our job is not just to teach students what’s in the textbook but rather help them to become better citizens. The Lifestyle Project contributes to that goal. That’s why it’s so powerful,” he says.

For more information about the Lifestyle Project, or to use it in your own class, visit:

Sample questions from the Lifestyle Project Eco-Rating Quiz

Below are a few questions and sample points values (in parentheses) for the answers from the Lifestyle Project Eco-Rating Quiz, which you can take online at:

The typical American scores between 126 and 200 on this 29-question quiz. Any lower, and you might qualify as eco-aware.

Do you ever take the bus?
Yes (0)
No (5)
Don’t like talking to the bus driver (10)
Afraid I might see someone I know (15)
Do you turn your lights off when you leave the room?    
Yes (0)
No (5)
How many hours a day is your computer on?
Zero (don’t have one) (0)
1-4 (1)
5-9 (2)
10-14 (3)
15-24 (4)
Do you leave the water running while brushing your teeth or washing your face?
Yes (5)
No (0)
How many hours a day is your TV on?
Zero (don’t have one) (0)
1-4 (1)
5-9 (2)
10-14 (3)
15-24 (4)
How many loads of laundry do you do each week?
0-1 (0)
2 (2)
3 (4)
4 or more (6)

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Branan is a freelance writer living in Colorado.

The Lifestyle Project  
Lifestyle Project Eco-Rating Quiz  

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