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Applying Psychological Research to Promote Sustainability and Behavior Change on Campus


Published April 27, 2021

During the fall 2020 semester, students in Professor Benita Jackson’s PSY 240 Colloquium: Health Promotion class drafted policy memos addressed to President McCartney that proposed sustainable initiatives to address environmental issues on campus. 

The students’ policy memos were informed by the annual UN Climate Change Report and psychology research on how emotion and motivation can effectively frame messages and promote behavior change. 

“As a psych[ology] major, the angle of understanding motivation and influencing behavior is very interesting to me,” said Erin Cusumano ’22, a PSY 240 student whose group focused on a memo that proposed increased funding for menstrual cups on campus. “This class was a great blend of my interests in health and psychology.” Erin worked with two other students, Maya Kiernan ’22 and Sophie Fennell ’23. 

Another group focused on a proposal that would reduce the amount of waste produced by students discarding reusable and unused items in the “free bins” located in Smith houses. 

Anna Peel ’22, Ellen Demgen ’21 and Lana Sabbah ’23 proposed the creation of a central resource center on campus that will collect these items year round, in addition to SmithCycle—a program run by the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS) that collects free bin items at the end of each semester. This resource center would also provide low-income students with free items to meet their needs. 

Other memos focused on mitigating climate change anxiety and reducing clothing waste on campus. For students, these proposals highlighted the vital connection between environmental sustainability and healthy behaviors. 

“I was surprised how much the course focused on sustainability, but I really liked the connections that were made between the topics,” said Maya Kiernan, “I learned how interconnected healthy living is with our environment and the world as a whole.”

The course also taught students how to evaluate empirical research and make it accessible for a wider public audience.

"Developing the skill of reading and translating psychological science for nonacademic audiences, then presenting their findings in a policy memo relevant to the Smith community, will serve students in their future studies and in their lives beyond Smith," said Jackson.

Issues of health and sustainability reach beyond the campus, but advocating for action at Smith is the first step towards global change. Through the unique lens of psychology, Jackson hopes that PSY 240 supported students with key developmental experience and tools toward tackling environmental issues. 

“Hopefully, students will have broadened their idea of health promotion to include work to halt the climate crisis and appreciate how psychology—identity, motivation, emotion—is so central to this project that affects all life.”

— Amanda Chisolm ’21
CEEDS Communications Intern