With the Environmental Action Committee’s annual Earth Day Festival following on the tail of the Presidential Panel on Climate Change, Harvard Climate Week, and Heat Week, the month of April presented ample opportunities for the Harvard community to engage with issues of climate change, sustainability, and clean energy. In addition to learning from two panel discussions on both the future of energy and divestment, I also had the opportunity to discuss the issue of composting.

The "Living Lab"

Unlike in the panels, learning about composting did not take place in the community space of an upperclassman dorm, nor did it involve active listening followed by Q&A. Instead, learning about sustainability took place in the space that was at once most intuitive and yet novel—in the classroom.

This semester, I took a psychology course that endowed its students with a set of tools useful for motivating behavioral change. Titled, “How to Nudge: Using Social Psychology and Decision Science to Change Behavior and Policy,” the class surveyed policy issues that span public health, personal finances, civic engagement, poverty alleviation, and sustainability; it then applied the decision-making tool of Define-Diagnose-Design-Test (DDDT) to construct or improve upon policies within these social domains.

On the same day that a panel of experts came together in Sanders to discuss the political and economic challenges of climate change, the students of my class came together with the Office For Sustainability’s (OFS) Residential Program Coordinator, Kelsey Grab, to discuss an under-recognized but equally important subtopic of climate change: composting. This day in class was a continuation of my month-long endeavor to learn sustainable habits that I would use to not only inform a more sustainable lifestyle, but to also influence that of my peers. For OFS, this day was an opportunity to incorporate the class into Harvard’s “living lab”— a term that Kelsey described to me as the interface between academic learning, administrative decisions, and broader community engagement.

The concept of using classrooms as “living labs” has the potential to cultivate within the student population a new mindset of community-applied learning.

I initially perceived this one-time classroom collaboration as OFS’s attempt to tap into the mental resources of an extremely relevant course. However, after applying the DDDT framework to residential dorm composting—a new initiative at Harvard, and one of the first of its kind at a college or university in this country according to Kelsey—I understood that the stakes were much higher. The concept of using classrooms as “living labs” has the potential to cultivate within the student population a new mindset of community-applied learning. By linking class instruction visibly to tangible issues that affect the students’ college experiences, the Office for Sustainability not only broadens its educational impact, but can also transform students from passive learners to proactive stakeholders of sustainability issues. In doing so, it helps construct a culture of sustainability within the community in addition to helping Harvard meet its Sustainability Plan for the fiscal year 2015-2020.

By linking class instruction visibly to tangible issues that affect the students’ college experiences, the Office for Sustainability not only broadens its educational impact, but can also transform students from passive learners to proactive stakeholders of sustainability issues.

Engaging students

Now, I’ll delve into the specifics of my experience to illustrate why OFS’s engagement with students in the classroom is important, and why it should be more prevalent than it currently is. Having identified composting as a principal method to reduce food waste and to build a culture of sustainability, the OFS collaborated with the Freshman Dean’s Office to bring residential composting to freshmen, starting with the Class of 2018. The program yielded initial success when a November waste audit found a 20% decrease of compostable material in traditional trash bins (compared to previous years).

The program has not released any new statistics since then, but it is actively seeking to increase student participation rate in the program. One step of its engagement process was to consult the students in my course. Although OFS has previously worked with third-party student bodies, it has never done so with students in a semester-long course. The process was exciting and natural to the structure of the course: because we had the DDDT framework to think about social interventions, we approached the composting case study as we did our other class discussions.

After Kelsey gave us an overview of the composting program and how she envisioned its development, she provided us two core problems for which we applied DDDT. The first ‘D’definition of behavioral flawsframed the two problems. We identified two issues hindering the program’s success: lack of student enrollment in the initiative and participation attrition after the initial uptake. The class split into groups and brainstormed ideas for the rest of the framework: Diagnose, Design, and Test.

A new lens on composting

The diagnoses for the first behavioral bottleneck covered descriptive norms; identity; the lack of motivation; status quo bias; and lack of understanding. For the second behavioral failure regarding post-enrollment participation, diagnoses spanned limited cognitive capacity; time discounting; lack of self-control; and lack of salience. Groups considered designs (the third ‘D’) to test each of these hypothetical behavioral explanations for the lack of enrollment and/or fallout with participation. Finally, we proposed design interventions. I won’t cover all the proposals here, but I want to share the candidates that I think are useful for OFS to consider for strengthening its program:

  • “For program enrollment, address lack of motivation by offering dorms’ students a chance to compete for extra brain break funds if their dorms achieve a target composting rate. This will provide extrinsic motivation for students to reinforce among themselves. Secondly, address social norms by incorporating composting into first-week-of-school activities, and distribute door stickers that can be used to signal to peers the prevalence of student participation.”
  • “For program retention, address time discounting by having PAFs incorporate composting reminder into every weekly email and/or meeting. This will increase the urgency of remembering to compost and disposing of compost bags. Additionally, address lack of salience by switching to translucent bins instead of the opaque green bins so students can see compost filling up the bin. The visual reminder will cue students to dispose their bags, and to begin anew.”

The designs above represent intersecting recommendations from the students of my psychology course. Although they have limitations with regards to budget and scalability, they nonetheless demonstrate the power of collaboration between administrative bodies such as the Office for Sustainability and student classes.

An impactful experience

My peers and I had the opportunity to investigate a problem that impacted our own campus and had potential to introduce composting practices to other college communities. More importantly, our experiences transformed us from uninformed novices of composting to stakeholders of sustainability. Arguably, by investing our time and thinking in a brief class project with administrative implications for our environment, student culture, and broader community, the experience nudged us closer towards thinking about our own sustainable habits, regardless of whether or not we personally practiced composting.

...by investing our time and thinking in a brief class project with administrative implications for our environment, student culture, and broader community, the experience nudged us closer towards thinking about our own sustainable habits.

I hope that my first psychology class in behavioral science is not the last course that will offer me the opportunity to immediately influence my community. I hope that the opportunity for students to enjoy extra-curricular collaboration with administrative bodies such as OFS will enhance their time in the classroom, and help remind them that each class can cultivate a skill set for social change.

Our experiences transformed us from uninformed novices of composting to stakeholders of sustainability.