Survey finds students want ISU to emphasize sustainability


Jeanetta Plotzke, a senior in environmental science and global research systems (left), Jonah Gray, a senior in environmental science (middle) and Jennifer Seth, an agricultural water management lab intern, presenting Student Perspectives on Sustainability at Iowa State University at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Iowa State students expressed their interest in the university establishing itself as a leader in sustainability, according to a report put together by the Sustainability in Curriculum-Change (SiC-CHANGE) team.

The report surveyed a total of 1,206 students, with a goal to understand and explore behaviors, beliefs, values, attitudes and knowledge regarding sustainability at Iowa State, according to Iowa State’s Consortium for Cultivating Human And Naturally reGenerative Enterprises website. The report was prepared by a total of six people, ranging from undergraduate students to Iowa State faculty.

The report stated that:

  • Students care about sustainability, with most respondents placing a high importance on environmental, economic and social sustainability outcomes as expressed in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
  • Students are concerned for the future, with 82% of respondents expressing concern that society is not on a sustainable path.
  • Students value education on sustainability, with 80% of respondents agreeing that all students should learn more about sustainability regardless of their field of study, and 70% agreeing that sustainability-related knowledge and skills will be beneficial for their intended career path.
  • Roughly 90% of respondents indicated that the ideal number of sustainability-related courses to take would be one or more, but 46% of respondents had not taken any sustainability-related courses at Iowa State.
  • Although 78% of respondents agreed that public universities should be leaders in sustainability, only 24% of respondents believed Iowa State is a leader in sustainability, with 21% agreeing that Iowa State prioritizes sustainability.

“In summary, the data showed that ISU students value sustainability education highly and would like the university to place more emphasis on integrating sustainability into coursework and extracurricular activities,” the report stated.

Co-author of the report Jennifer Seth, an agricultural water management lab intern and recent Iowa State graduate, said although students may not currently see the impacts of climate change, they eventually will.

“You are hearing on the news how the stuff going on […] like train derailments [and] water quality that is impacting a huge amount of people, and as much as we don’t want to think about that, that could be us,” Seth said.

Co-author of the report Jeanetta Plotzke, a senior in environmental science and global research systems, stressed the importance of students’ desire to see sustainability incorporated into their coursework.

“Every year, Iowa State kind of puts out a strategic plan for the next year, and they talk about sustainability and stuff like that in the report, but it never really addresses it within the curriculum,” Plotzke said. “Maybe that’s not on the horizon right now, but I think it’s very important because sustainability is a thing that needs to be on everybody’s mind […]; it’s working its way into every technical area and discipline that we study at college.”

Co-author of the report J. Arbuckle, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, said he hopes the report will have a wide impact on campus.

“I’m quite hopeful that the administrators at different levels will read it [the report] and take seriously its findings […]; it’s important to know what the key findings were,” Arbuckle said. “What we found was that students […] have a concern about sustainability, and they’re really interested in studying sustainability as part of their curriculum and extracurricular activities.”

Seth said she has been concerned about the environment since she was in high school, and as she has grown, so have her concerns.

“​​Hearing all about […] global warming in high school freaked me out a lot, and so here we are,” Seth said. “Now I know how deep it runs […] like fast fashion; [I] learned about fast fashion. […] Sustainability issues are everywhere.”

Seth said every student should be knowledgeable about sustainability and the environment.

“​​I think students should care about sustainability because it will affect them,” Seth said. “It is something that affects everybody at some point in their lives.”