For Stephen Armstrong '16 and Holli Erkson '16, what began as typical assignment in their Psychology of Environmental Sustainability course—taught by Professor of Psychology Milene Morfei '89—evolved into an opportunity for national travel to the widely-attended Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference and a chance to bond with some of Wells' most dedicated and supportive alumnae.
The two students were a part of a small group of students assigned the topic of "Energy Usage" for their class project. "We wanted to measure the amount of energy that was wasted on campus and see if we could use positive reinforcement to change the behavior of faculty/professors," says Armstrong.
After an initial campus-wide study of energy consumption, Armstrong and Erkson decided to focus on the sustainable practices of faculty and professors. The duo wanted to investigate whether these groups were making conscious efforts to reduce energy waste. With the idea in mind that professors and faculty are leaders and mentors on campus, the experiment was grounded in the belief that they have the ability to revolutionize sustainability on campus. "As professors, students look up to them. It was our belief that if our school was going to take a step toward energy conservation it needed to start with the faculty."
For three weeks, Armstrong and Erkson observed the practices of faculty and professors, making note of when they turned their office lights off or kept them on. After this initial three-week period, positive reinforcement notes were left on office doors, commending mindful faculty for turning off their lights and encouraging sustainable practices. However, if they had been wasteful, the note would include a reminder to turn off their lights, plus a statistic about energy use.
Armstrong and Erkson then documented the change in sustainable practices as a result of their positive reinforcement and reminder notes to faculty. When encouraged through positive reinforcement—and effectively opening up a conversation about energy consumption—Armstrong and Erkson were able to change a majority of their participants' practices for the better. The results showed a significant drop in energy consumption.
Their research was then compiled and analyzed. With the help of Marian Brown, Director of the Center for Sustainability and the Environment, Armstrong and Erkson submitted their project and were accepted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Minneapolis, Minn. to present their findings.
This annual conference is organized by professional sustainability practitioners and educators in higher education to promote students and faculty as agents of sustainable change on college and university campuses. ASSHE brings together students from across the states to brainstorm ideas to strengthen sustainability movement on campuses, from simply enacting a campus-wide ban on plastic bottles to starting divestment movements at universities.
At the conference, Armstrong and Erkson presented their research in a 90-minute poster session and attended a day-long student summit where they engaged in many different workshops and talks about environmental awareness on college campuses.
While in Minneapolis, Armstrong and Erkson also took the time to meet with Wells alumnae in the area as well. "The alum[nae] group [we met with] were incredible women," says Armstrong, "It was a great feeling to have to know that even by just attending Wells you will have people come out and support your efforts."