Sustainability Focus Groups

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center Director

During the spring the Hixon Center, with the help of CGU doctoral student Sara Hollar, conducted a series of focus groups on sustainability at Harvey Mudd College. The goal for the undertaking was to evaluate the work of the Hixon Center over the past 4+ years against people’s perceptions of the Center, identify needs for new or more effort, and to learn about what motivates people to act more sustainably.

Five focus groups were held with a total of 33 participants. The groups involved both random samples and targeted groups of “super users” among students, faculty and staff. They provided a rich and quite consistent tapestry of experiences, desires, and perceptions — information that the Hixon Center and the College can use to develop future programs and initiatives.

Here, I summarize the main take-home points. If you would like to read the full reports, they are available here. The questions asked of focus group participants are listed at the end of the article.

All three sustainability stakeholder groups recognized that many improvements in campus sustainability had been made, particularly within the past four years. In particular, participants were able to name specific initiatives such as the installation of EV charging stations, landscaping and irrigation adaptations, efforts to increase recycling and composting as well as a reduction in single-use plastics, and a greater focus on educational opportunities such as workshops and a speaker series. That said, participants also noted that these changes were a drop in the bucket compared to the overall use of resources and that they were hungry for larger scale policy change that would be more impactful. A perceived lack of institutional commitment or support for sustainability as a value was a common theme across the groups, although staff generally felt that the College deserved more credit for what it has accomplished to date and noted the economic aspects of sustainability changes.

On the curricular side, students noted that with the exception of a particular module in Chemistry 23, more could be done with the curriculum around sustainability. Some students voiced dissatisfaction with the requirements of the Environmental Analysis Emphasis (EEA), although it was unclear if they knew of the recent changes made to the EEA to improve flexibility. Faculty, in turn, was excited about the opportunities that might arise from the redesign of the core curriculum and emphasized their commitment to include more climate change related material into courses.

Regarding the Hixon Center and its work, many students and faculty members were well aware of the Center’s existence and could list programming activities undertaken by the Center, although some wished that the Center advertised more. In general, students and faculty felt that the Center effectively bridged both academic and residential life and provided a central space for planning environmental initiatives and for connecting with others involved in sustainability projects. Among staff, knowledge of the Hixon Center and its work was more varied. For example, some staff members, who had attended many of the talks organized by the Center, were familiar with the student concentration in sustainability, and read the newsletters with interest. Others did not know anything about it and found it difficult to help when they did not know the Center’s purpose. Participants in the random selection of staff members discussed the importance of the Hixon Center in relation to students. They felt that as a STEM school, “our students will influence the future, so the Center should promote student work on improving tech and the world.”

The staff focus groups also expressed confusion about the division of labor and responsibilities between Facilities and Maintenance (F&M) and the Hixon Center in initiating and executing sustainable policies. This is related to the point the faculty group made about many sustainable changes being undertaken by F&M, but staff spent more time discussing both the importance of facilities improvements and wondering about the role of the Hixon Center in relation to F&M. They discussed, without resolution, if the best role of the Hixon Center was as an intellectual or academic center, or if its role was to change tangible aspects of the College’s energy or waste operations.

When asked about perceived barriers to sustainability, students, faculty, and staff generally attested to a lack of knowledge about sustainable choices. Like faculty and students, staff expressed a strong desire for more opportunities to learn about initiatives, while also acknowledging that the newsletter perhaps had some of this information, but they did not generally read it (this was echoed by students in the randomly selected group as well). Staff, in particular, wanted much more information on the purpose behind different initiatives or procedure changes. They also asked to be informed on the effect of these changes, and wanted to be able to make suggestions for change, perhaps through an online suggestion box. The staff focus groups clearly showed that staff members were not only eager to learn more about sustainability but had many ideas of their own, from transportation to telecommuting and other aspects of campus operations.

All groups felt that having dedicated staff to advocate for sustainability was of critical importance, especially given the general culture of business and overwork at Harvey Mudd (as a student put it: “sustainability is a source of stress, and we’re already so tired, it’s hard to think about.”) Even students unfamiliar with the specifics of the Hixon Center said “I’ve seen a lot more sustainability related stuff over my four years here, and I don’t think that would have happened without the Hixon Center.” Faculty especially thought the existence of the Center was critical for advancing environmental initiatives in the face of many other institutional priorities.

Looking ahead, faculty and students—just like staff members—had specific recommendations for becoming more sustainable as an institution. Faculty noted that the College could remove some barriers to sustainable choices by making improvements to its built environment. This included improved signage, more xeriscaping, an energy audit of the campus, but also expanded bike parking, showers for commuters, and more electronic charging ports for cars. The random sample of students shared a unique barrier to environmental action: a feeling of being disconnected from nature. This feeling arose from being in artificial environments that were divorced from natural ecosystems. For comparison, they mentioned the signs that labeled plants in Pitzer College, the use of native landscaping, and excursions to natural places, like Bernard Field House, as ways to re-establish connections with nature. Both student groups felt that the requirement of having to take classes in their concentration and many of their humanities classes on campus was a barrier to become more involved with sustainability. Clinic was seen as one vehicle to offer more environmental and sustainability-themed projects. Students also wanted more career advice on connecting their major with environmental issues, more research and internship opportunities, and other resume-boosting activities that were related to sustainability.

Overall, the Hixon Center is very grateful to all participants for taking the time to share their viewpoints and experiences and to Sara for her skills in running the focus groups. Collectively, they provide a fairly comprehensive narrative of sustainability at Harvey Mudd College and many valuable opportunities for action. Scoping these actions should be part of the strategic planning for the next 4-5 years for the Center and would best be undertaken with the support of an advisory group consisting of faculty, staff, and students.

Focus Group Questions:

  1. Do you see Harvey Mudd as an environmentally conscious college? Why or why not? What does the college do that you view as environmentally friendly or unfriendly?
  2. What do you know about the Hixon Center? What do you think they do? Is their role on campus important?
  3. Do you know of any current sustainability projects or initiatives at HMC, or on other campuses? Do you think those projects and initiatives are successful?
  4. What barriers exist here at Harvey Mudd that make it harder to be environmentally conscious? What could the college do to remove these barriers?
  5. Thinking about your life as a whole, what, if anything, has inspired you to make environmentally friendly choices? What makes you engage with environmental issues?
  6. Are there sustainability projects or initiatives that you would like to see happen here at Mudd? What do you think is the best role for students/staff to play in any future environmental initiatives that the college might present?
  7. STAFF: Do you think it is important to know or learn about the links between your work and sustainability? What do you do, if anything, to understand these links?
  8. STAFF: How could the Hixon Center help you or aid staff with integrating sustainability principles and practices more visibly and meaningfully into your work at the College?
  9. FACULTY: Do you think it is important to demonstrate the links between your course material/content and sustainability? What do you do, if anything, to make those links explicit?
  10. FACULTY: How could the Hixon Center help you or aid faculty with integrating sustainability topics more visibly and meaningfully into your courses or curriculum?
  11. STUDENTS: How well or how much do you think sustainability is integrated into your current coursework? What would you like to see more of in terms of course content or course offerings?