Zilkha Center Thanks Participants in Sustainability Literacy Survey

The Zilkha Center recently conducted a survey of sustainability literacy among Williams students. Aimed to gauge students’ existing knowledge of sustainability topics and challenges such as climate change, environmental and social justice, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion, the survey contributes to the college’s reporting to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) developed and maintained by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as well as the Zilkha Center’s design of student-centered sustainability learning and engagement programs.

The Zilkha Center opted to develop its own survey, informed by research on existing higher education sustainability literacy surveys as well as input from sustainability offices from among our peer institutions in the region. We also gratefully acknowledge the valuable assistance from the Office of Institutional Research.

Open from late September through November 1 and disseminated through Daily Messages and posters around campus, the survey received 344 submissions for a response rate of approximately 17%. Respondents largely represented the student body’s demographics and cohort enrollment, although self-identified female respondents were overrepresented (61.7%). 

The survey included 29 sustainability questions across seven issue areas (sustainability science, sustainable development, climate & energy, water, waste, ecology & natural resource management, environmental justice)  and a section specific to Williams’ sustainability efforts. To keep the length of the survey and hence completion times manageable, a subset of questions from each section was randomly selected. Although the survey was anonymous, students had the option to submit their email addresses to enter a random drawing for three room decoration gift baskets from a small local vendor featuring sustainably made items.

While we caution against extrapolating the survey results to the entire student body, there were some interesting findings that we would like to share. As the following statistics show, the survey points to opportunities to develop new and finetune ongoing student learning and engagement activities.

First, a solid majority of survey respondents (nearly 62%) have had exposure to sustainability through classes at Williams, high school and elsewhere. This is a robust baseline from which to expand to the remaining 39%. On campus, students mostly learn about sustainability via Daily Messages, social media, word of mouth and physical posters, which indicates that a sufficiently diverse range of communication channels exists to serve information needs. 

Another positive finding is that across all sustainability issue areas, majorities of students know the key facts and challenges. That said, more learning and communication potential exists for the more detailed aspects of sustainability. For example, 27% of respondents thought that 5-10% of global water resources is freshwater available for human consumption (the fraction is estimated to be 0.5-1%), 32% thought that China has cumulatively the highest greenhouse gas emissions (while China became the world’s top emitter in 2006, cumulatively the US still has the highest emissions), and nearly 25% of respondents did not know the current share of renewables in US energy consumption (12.4%). Click the graphs below to zoom in.

While respondents generally had a solid understanding of the economic and social dimensions of sustainability, many were still unsure about some specifics such as the definition of environmental justice communities used by the state of Massachusetts and the range of climate change impacts on vulnerable populations. 

The college, and the Zilkha Center in particular, need to continue to find ways to reach students with information about our own sustainability efforts, including the Farmington solar PV project (nearly 50% of respondents don’t know that the share of Williams’ purchased electricity coming from this project is appr. 73%), the fuel used by our central plant (natural gas), our most recent AASHE STARS rating (Gold), our largest greenhouse gas emissions source (the central plant), and how Williams contributes positively to sustainability efforts in our surrounding communities.

In conclusion, we want to thank all respondents for taking the time to complete the survey. Your input is valuable and we hope that it was informative for you as well.


Tanja Srebotnjak is the Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College.