Environmental Awareness: A Survey of UNT Students’ Knowledge and Opinions

Abstract: 

The University of North Texas (UNT) is steadily progressing towards becoming more “green” or environmentally-friendly, but are the students really interested in the effort? Previous research found that an introductory course about the environment improved students’ opinions and actions toward the green movement (McMillan et al. 2004). Thus, the first hypothesis was that science majors would show more concern towards the environment than would humanities and social science majors. A similar college survey also indicated that males showed more concern for the environment than females (MacDonald and Hara 1994). The second hypothesis was that males would show more concern for the environment than females. The survey for this study consisted of knowledge-based, opinion-based, and personal-identifying questions and was completed in a large, freshman-level class in fall 2013. The data were analyzed and were found to not be statistically different between males and females, science majors or non-science majors. An overall low level of knowledge was indicated for all was found and mediation was proposed.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    It is of the utmost importance that UNT students care about the environment, as this school in particular is making the journey to becoming as environmentally-friendly as possible. Building low-carbon footprint and energy efficient buildings, implementing a smoking ban on campus, and establishing a strong recycling program are just a few examples of the initiatives undertaken at UNT. For these steps to truly make a difference, the students must also be aware of the efforts, and participate in the green movement. Are students at the University of North Texas aware of their impact on the environment? This study seeks to elucidate the roles of gender or academic major in environmental consciousness.

    Literature Review

    Many scientists around the world have taken up research in climate change, anthropogenic impacts on the earth, possible trajectories of the environment’s current state, and other environmental issues. Businesses, schools, universities, organizations, and individuals have taken this research to heart and are working toward developing more sustainable lifestyles and more environmentally-friendly actions.

    Environmental and Ecological Research

    Researchers are constantly reporting that the earth has reached its carrying capacity. Negative processes such as ocean acidification, freshwater and biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, along with others, have already overwhelmed some areas of the world, and threaten to overtake the entire globe. Foley (2010) has given suggested boundaries for deforestation, pollution, consumption of resources, carbon dioxide levels, and a number of other measurable problems. He thinks that strictly enforcing these boundaries is the first step to turning our planet’s fate around. Other researchers (Foley 2012; Pechurkin and Somova 2012) have developed mathematical equations to calculate ecological footprints, biocapacity, unsustainability, and ecological reliability, while accounting for different types of technology. Pechurkin and Somova (2012) state that humans currently need one and a half planets in order to continue living in the same manner and by 2030 humans will need three planets to keep up with consumption of resources. Humans are the most powerful portion of the ecosystem; we have the most destructive power, but we also have great restoration power (Pechurkin and Somova 2012).

    Environmental Awareness Research

    Environmental research has been going on long enough that studies are now being conducted in order to gauge the amount of knowledge individuals have about the environment, how much they are learning, what level of concern they have, and what kind of eco-conscious actions they are demonstrating. A variety of surveys have been conducted seeking information as to how individuals’ actions indicate such knowledge as well. One study of college students (MacDonald and Hara 1994) found that males cared more about the environment than females did, and that family income did not have a correlation with these findings. The authors concluded males were more politically and scientifically aware of the environment’s condition and human impact than females (Macdonald and Hara 1994). Another study reported that an introductory class about the environment had positive results in moving students toward more eco-centric mindsets and more sustainable lifestyles (MacMillan et al. 2004). Still another survey, conducted in China, found that students were quite conscious of environmental issues, and able to rank issues from most to least threatening. However, many students were not optimistic about the future of the environment (Wong 2003).

    Studies among students younger than college level indicated students were gaining most of their environmental knowledge from television. Education was not necessarily changing student actions (Aini Mat, Yahaya, and Ahmadun 2007), and students needed to be able to connect the concept of “environment” to their actual surroundings and where they lived; they needed to understand that the environment was not just a far-away place (Fisman 2005).

    University of North Texas and the Environment

    UNT has developed and maintained numerous initiatives to become an environmentally sustainable campus and has a web page dedicated to explaining its sustainable practices (sustainable.unt.edu). Three LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, USGBC 2014) certified buildings are part of the campus— the Life Sciences Complex which is LEED Gold, the Business Leadership Building which is LEED Gold, and Apogee Stadium which is LEED Platinum. LEED certification verifies that buildings are energy efficient, water efficient, and generally environmentally friendly. Platinum is the highest level of LEED certification, with Gold following as second highest. UNT received a grant and built three wind turbines to generate energy and UNT has replaced many of its appliances with water-saving and energy-saving alternatives. UNT Dining Services has worked to reduce waste and increase efficiency, and the UNT campus became a smoke-free campus in 2012. Busses are available so that students can reduce car use to and from, and around campus. Recycling is highly advertised all around campus and appropriate containers are located in all areas of the campus.

    Methodology

    For data collection, a survey was distributed to a required, freshman-level class at UNT in fall 2013. The class chosen was a Political Science class because it would have students of all majors and potentially, multiple classifications. Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval was needed to conduct this study, as human subjects were directly involved. The investigator had completed both NIH training and CITI training. All participants signed consent forms. The survey included demographic questions so that the subjects could be divided into groups based on gender, major, or classification. Multiple choice questions that tested subjects’ knowledge of specific topics about the environment (to include pollution, water use, and environmentally-related deaths) were also included on the survey. A Likert scale-ranking question evaluated the students’ environmental concern, specifically whether it was important to care for the environment or not, and free-response questions were also provided to allow students to describe their actions in regard to the environment. After the completion of the surveys, the raw data was categorized and analyzed. First, the surveys were separated into four main categories: male science majors, female science majors, male non-science majors, and female non-science majors. The multiple choice questions were graded by number of questions correct (out of seven) and the average number correct was determined for each of the four categories. An average for each of the four subject categories was also found for the scale question, which was ranked one through five. Finally, the free-response questions responses were reviewed for themes and were grouped into categories, based on the most common themes. The most common responses for each of the four subject groups were identified.

    Results

    Demographics

    Seventy-five students participated in this study and 71 of the surveys were completed and used for data analysis. One hundred twenty students, all over the age of eighteen, were enrolled in the course. Fifty-two percent of the students were male and 48 percent were female. Approximately 70 percent of the students were non-science majors while the rest were science or engineering majors. More specifically, 15 male science majors, six female science majors, 22 male non-science majors, and 28 female non-science majors were represented. The students were predominantly freshmen and sophomores, with a small number of juniors and one senior. See Table 1.

    What Do Students Know about the Environment?

    This portion of the survey consisted of seven multiple choice questions concerning environmental awareness. The question topics included water usage of household appliances, deaths caused by pollution, and land use on the earth. The questions were designed to quickly assess the students’ general knowledge of the topics and could be answered in only a few minutes. The question answered correctly most often was, “How many sea mammals were killed every year by pollution”; the most commonly missed question was, “How many people die each day due to the consumption of dirty water.” There was very little difference in regard to how often they were answered correctly and which students answered them correctly. The average number of questions answered correctly was compared based on four groups: male science majors, female science majors, male non-science majors, and female non-science majors. Little difference was found among these four groups. Table 2 shows the average numbers of questions answered correctly by each of the four student categories.

    The male science majors had the highest average of 2.93 questions answered correctly and female non-science majors had the lowest average of 2.00 questions answered correctly, but there was no significant difference among any of the categories, as determined by the student’s T-test.

    Questions Concerning Opinion

    The first question regarding student opinion of environmental awareness asked students to rate the importance of caring for the environment on a Likert scale from one to five, one meaning of little or no importance and five meaning great importance. Once again, there was little difference between the four categories of students. The average for students majoring in science subjects was four and the average for students majoring in non-science subjects was 3.7. See Figure 2.

    Finally, the survey ended with four open-ended questions evaluating students’ actions towards the environment. The first question simply asked students why caring for the environment was important, or why it was not important. The most common answer to this question, among all four categories of students, stated that the planet was theirs. Students commonly said that they lived here, that they needed the earth’s resources, and that there was no other place to live. Forty-five percent of students gave an answer that fell into this category. One student wrote “The fabric of society is tied to ecological stability. The basic beauties of the environment need to remain so we don’t lose what makes Earth, Earth.” This eloquent statement spoke to the intrinsic need to preserve the environment, but most students did not echo this sentiment. Most students regarded the environment as the source for the things that they needed in their lives, not something with its own worth or value.

    A second common answer to this question stated that it was important to care for the environment for future generations. One student said “Ethically it is our duty to protect the environment that has been given to us for ourselves, those around us, and future generations to come.” Nearly twenty percent of students agreed. A few students responded that they merely did not think about caring for the environment or that it was too expensive to pay for eco-friendly alternatives. Another small group of students felt that there was no need to care for the environment or that the efforts to protect or restore the environment were not strong enough to make a difference in the earth’s current ecological trajectory.

    The remaining three open-ended questions asked the students what they did to care for the environment at home and at UNT, respectively, and what UNT did to care for the environment. The answers indicating what students did at their homes to care for the environment fell into several categories including conserving water, walking or carpooling, and using energy-saving appliances, but 50 percent of the students answered with the same response: recycling. Twenty-eight percent of students answered that they recycled and practiced other ways to care for the environment, for a combined 79 percent of students claiming to recycle. Alternately, almost ten percent of students responded that they did nothing to care for the environment in their homes.

    The question that asked students what they did at UNT to care for the environment brought about somewhat similar answers. Approximately 62 percent of students said that they only recycled at UNT and an additional 13 percent of students added that they recycled along with something else such as walking to class or conserving water. About 12 percent of students said that they did nothing at UNT to care for the environment.

    Finally, students described what they thought UNT did for the environment. Again, the majority of students, 40 percent, responded with only recycling. Another 25 percent of students said that UNT offered recycling along with other methods to stay environmentally conscious. Fourteen percent of students explained that UNT had LEED buildings, conserved energy, or was overall “green” and eleven percent of students did not know what UNT did.

    Discussion

    In each of the sections of the administered survey, students in all four categories (male science, female science, male non-science, and female non-science) gave answers with similar trends. The average number of multiple choice questions answered correctly was very similar among all of the students as was the rated importance of caring for the environment. The open-ended question responses had the same most common response among all of the categories and in each case, very few students responded negatively, apathetically, or ignorantly towards actively caring for the environment.

    The two hypotheses, that males would know and care more about the environment and that science majors would know and care more about the environment, were not supported. No significant differences were found among the responses of the students, based on the Student’s t-Tests. A t-Test p-value must be less than 0.05 in order to be significantly different and all of the p-values from the acquired data were greater than 0.05.

    This survey did reveal two very important things. First, overall the participants had a low level of knowledge about specific environmental topics. The second is that most students did not know about all of the ways that UNT works to protect the environment. Students were directly asked what they knew that UNT did to care for the environment and most only responded with recycling. Recycling is an important practice at UNT, but there are numerous other green initiatives that have begun on the UNT campus, as previously described in the literature review. It seems that the school has in no way fallen short in its movement towards sustainability, but that students simply are not aware enough of all that is taking place on their campus.

    As the results of this survey found no difference between male, female, science, and non-science majors, it seems clear that more awareness needs to be spread across all UNT students. I would propose that sustainability and environmental awareness should be added to student orientation so that incoming students can become aware of all that UNT does to stay “green”. Additionally, providing a lecture series that encompasses several aspects of environmental education could be extremely helpful in raising student awareness. On a larger scale, I believe that a required course in environmental science would provide the strongest movement toward student environmental awareness.

    Summary and Conclusions

     The question I hoped to answer was whether UNT students knew about cared about the environment. In reviewing literature, I found that other studies have shown males and science majors knowing more, and caring more, about the environment. Consequently, those were the two hypotheses I sought to verify, or not. I tested these by administering a survey to a large class at UNT in fall 2013. After analyzing the results I found that there was no difference between males and females or science majors and non-science majors among UNT students and that there was an overall low level of environmental awareness on a global scale and regarding UNT. The proposed solutions to fill the gaps in environmental awareness are to teach students about UNT’s efforts during student orientation, to provide lectures about the environment and they importance of caring for it, and in the future, requiring students to take a course in environmental science.

    References

    • Aini Mat, Said, Nurizan Yahaya, and Fakhru'l-Razi Ahmadun. "Environmental Comprehension and Participation of Malaysian Secondary School Students." Environmental Education Research 13, no. 1(2007): 17-31. doi: 10.1080/13504620601122616.
    • Fisman, Lianne. "The Effects of Local Learning on Environmental Awareness in Children: An Empirical Investigation." Journal of Environmental Education 36, no. 3(2005): 39-50. doi: 10.3200/JOEE.36.3.39-50.
    • Foley, Jonathan. "Boundaries for a Healthy Planet." Scientific American 302, no. 4 (2010): 54-57. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0410-54.
    • MacDonald, William L., and Naoto Hara. "Gender Differences in Environmental Concern among College Students." Sex Roles 31, no. 5/6 (1994): 369-374.  doi:10.1007/BF01544595.
    • McMillan, Emily E., Tarah Wright, and Karen. Beazley. "Impact of a University-Level Environmental Studies Class on Students' Values." Journal of Environmental Education 35, no. 3 (2004): 19-28. doi:10.3200/JOEE.35.3.19-27.
    •  Pechurkin, Nickolay, and Lydia Somova. "The Effect of Anthropogenic Increase on the Earth as a Life-Support System for Mankind." Journal of Life Sciences 6, no. 3 (2012): 343-348.  doi:10.1134/S1019331614010092.
    • LEED Certification. United States Green Building Council. Accessed August 14, 2014.  <http://www.usgbc.org/about/leed/current-version>.
    • Wong, Koon-Kwai. "The Environmental Awareness of University Students in Beijing, China." Journal of Contemporary China 12, no. 36 (2003): 519. doi: 10.1080/10670560305472.

    Figure 1: Average Number of Multiple Choice Questions Correct by Student's T

    Figure 2: Average Importance of Caring for Environment (ranked from 1-5)

    Table 1:  Student Demographics

    Total 71 100%
    Male Science 15 21%
    Female Science 6 8%
    Male Non-science 22 31%
    Female Non-science 28 39%
    Male 37 52%
    Female 34 48%
    Freshmen 29 41%
    Sophomores 28 39%
    Juniors 13 18%
    Seniors 1 1%
    Science 21 30%
    Non-science 50 70%

    Table 2:  Number of Correct Answers to Multiple Choice Questions

      Average Questions Correct Standard Deviation
    Male Science 2.93 1.53
    Female Science 2.83 1.94
    Male Non-Science 2.32 1.21
    Female Non-Science 2.00 1.52

    Table 3:  Question 1 - Is caring for the environment important, why or why not?

    Responses Male Science Female Science Male Non-science Female Non-science
    I need resources, I live here 7 4 9 9
    Keeping planet clean & healthy 1 1 1 4
    Animals 1 0 1 1
    Future of Planet 2 0 5 5
    Too expensive 2 0 1 2
    No need 1 1 2 0
    Don’t think about it 0 0 2 3

    Table 4:  Question 2 - What do you do to care for the environment where you live?

    Responses Male Science Female Science Male Non-science Female Non-science
    Recycle only 8 1 11 15
    Recycle + more 2 3 6 8
    Food, land, animals 0 1 0 1
    Conserve energy 1 0 2 0
    Conserve water 0 0 0 3
    Carpool, walking 1 0 0 0
    Nothing 2 1 2 1

    Table 5:  Question 3 - What do you do to care for the environment at UNT?

    Responses Male Science Female Science Male Non-science Female Non-science
    Recycle only 8 5 12 17
    Recycle + more 1 1 1 6
    Non-smoking, walk, bus 1 0 4 4
    Nothing 3 0 4 1

    Table 6:  Question 4 - What does UNT do to care for the environment?

    Responses Male Science Female Science Male Non-science Female Non-science
    Recycle only 2 3 12 8
    Recycle + more 4 1 4 7
    “Green”, LEED, conserve energy 0 1 3 5
    Smoke free, awareness 2 0 0 3
    Food, nature 1 0 0 0
    Don’t know 1 0 3 3