Energy Literacy in Higher Education Students: A European Comparative Study

This source preferred by Chris Shiel

Authors: Cotton, D.R.E., Shiel, C., Paço, A., Miller, W. and Winter, J.

Start date: 2 September 2014

Higher Education (HE) has a key role to play in educating ‘leaders for the future’ (Martin and Jucker, 2005), and there is an increasing expectation that HE should equip graduates with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to enable them to respond appropriately to sustainability challenges. Whilst many students are exposed to opportunities in learning for sustainability through formal university curricula, there is significant variation depending upon the course studied. Nonetheless, there are some signs that universities are seeking to integrate sustainability concerns not just into curricula, but also campus management and community relations – freeing up opportunities for informal learning across the disciplines (Sterling et al., 2013). At least in the UK, there is also some evidence of a correlation between young people’s participation in HE and subsequent commitment to environmental sustainability when other factors are held constant (Cotton and Alcock, 2012).

Energy-saving forms an important part of efforts to enhance sustainability on campus, yet little is known about the levels of energy literacy amongst Europe’s HE students. The development of students’ energy literacy has received relatively little attention in the research literature, and the European context is under-explored, with most previous research in the US. Findings here suggest that students’ understanding of energy is often patchy, with high concern but lower knowledge and skills (DeWaters and Powers, 2011). Moreover, where energy issues do appear, this is mainly in the context of campus greening or energy-reduction schemes, particularly in student residences. The focus of many of these schemes is predominantly behaviour change rather than wider energy literacy, an emphasis that may have important implications for the longer-term impact of any such changes. According to DeWaters and Powers (2011), energy literacy should empower ‘students to make informed energy-related choices as they go about their daily life’ (p.10), and should include: • Knowledge and understanding about energy, its use and impact on environment and society (cognitive); • Appropriate attitudes and values, for example, on existence of global issues and the significance of personal decisions and actions (affective); and • Appropriate intentions/behaviours, for example to promote energy conservation, make thoughtful decisions, advocate change (conative).

This paper reports on research which explored these dimensions of energy literacy in the student population at three European universities (two in the UK and one in Portugal). It builds on an earlier study at Plymouth University which suggested that - even in this leading institution in terms of sustainability performance - there remained scope for further development to enhance energy literacy (Cotton et al., 2013). Findings of this study suggested that exposure to energy issues in the curriculum was patchy, only a minority of students were involved through extra-curricular activities, and gaps in knowledge meant behavioural choices were not always the most effective at energy saving. In addition, energy-saving initiatives on campus were often unseen by students, and there are indications of ‘mixed messages’ being received which could undermine efficacy. Bournemouth and Beira Interior also carried out a previous comparative study about general environmental values, attitudes and behaviours (Shiel and Paço, 2012). The study of specific environmental issues as in the case of energy literacy is now the aim.

The current study involves repeating the Plymouth survey (in early 2014), in collaboration with Bournemouth, UK and University of Beira Interior, Portugal. This allows some longitudinal comparability, as well as comparison with other UK and European HEIs. It is envisaged that in future years the survey could be rolled out more widely, thus providing a useful temporal/spatial dataset for researchers in the area of energy literacy and sustainable development within European HE, an area where little literature currently exists.

Methodology/ methods (400 words – 382 at present) The aims of this study were to undertake a comparative study of students’ energy literacy at selected UK and European universities. This research utilised an instrumental case study approach (Stake, 1995) to explore the issue of energy literacy in higher education at diverse HE institutions. Through profiling the attributes of student respondents to this survey, a baseline for future longitudinal studies will be attained. The results also provide a comparator for other higher education institutions, both in Europe and internationally. The authors gained ethical approval for the study in each of their own institutions, and then sent an invitation to participate to all currently enrolled students. Survey questions were broadly the same, although personalised to fit the institutional context and based on a questionnaire developed by Cotton et al. (2013). The survey included a mix of open and closed questions, and replicated some questions asked in the previous study, as well as others identified in analysis to date. This allows for both longitudinal comparability, as well as comparison with other European HEIs. Themes covered include students’: knowledge of energy definitions, facts and issues; origins of this knowledge (including the formal and informal curricula); awareness of university activities and initiatives around energy use; attitudes towards energy-related and sustainability problems presented by the media, non-profit organisations, government and academic literature; energy-related behaviours and perceived barriers and opportunities for changing these. The survey also built on prior research concerning knowledge, attitudes and behaviour regarding energy issues. It included questions from previous surveys at secondary and tertiary educational level and amongst wider populations, mainly in the UK and US. The survey included the full set of questions from the New Ecological Paradigm scale (Dunlap et al. 2000). This is the most widely validated and tested measure of environmental attitudes and has shown predictive validity and correlations with age, education, and political ideologies. Despite Lundmark’s (2007) contention that the language of the NEP needs updating, its inclusion enabled comparability with existing surveys of environmental attitudes. The survey was delivered via an online facility, and the data analysis will utilise SPSS and NVivo. Frequencies, cross-tabulations and chi-square tests enable an analysis of any relationships between demographic variables and energy literacy. Similarities and differences between the institutions will be discussed in the paper, together with recommendations for further research.

Conclusions, Expected outcomes or findings (300 words – 273 words) The first phase of research into energy literacy was carried out at Plymouth University, through a survey into knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of students, delivered via Survey Monkey (in 2013). This elicited over 3,000 responses (6% response rate). Key findings included that: • Students learn about energy from a range of different sources, but formal education is a key influence • There is room for improving the connections between curriculum and campus operations to enhance understanding and prompt behaviour change • Energy issues were generally seen as lower priority than the economy or national security by students, despite their relatively eco-centric responses on the NEP scale • Many students displayed little faith in their ability to influence activities beyond the individual sphere (e.g. government, businesses), and thought that scientists will find ways to solve energy problems The data illustrate the difficulties in changing behaviour where understanding is only partial (for example, many students prioritised turning off the lights as an energy-saving activity despite the frequently trivial energy gains from this action). Enhancing formal and informal learning opportunities is therefore a key element for change. Improving knowledge is far from straightforward, however, not least because energy issues are not integral to all degree programmes therefore strong reliance is placed on the informal curriculum. Comparisons between these findings and those at the other institutions collaborating in the second phase of the study will be the focus of this paper. Whilst comparative research between different countries with very different educational systems is not straightforward, this research will provide a baseline for further exploration. We hope that the conference will provide a fruitful context for recruiting further research partners.

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