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First-Year Students' Conceptions of Sustainability as Revealed through Concept Maps

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Division: Sustainability and Hands-On Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

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Paper Authors


Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado - Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the ABET assessment coordinator for the three Bachelor's degrees in the department. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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The term sustainability is over-used and often misused in society. Further, sustainability and sustainable engineering are complex topics. This research explored how first year engineering students define these complex ideas, and the impacts of two different instructional methods on their ideas. Sustainability knowledge was evaluated using concept maps. Students’ initial ideas about sustainability were explored based on concept maps that individual students generated in-class. This was followed by two different instruction methods. Civil and architectural engineering students in a two-credit first year introduction to engineering course learned about sustainable engineering rating systems in a two-week module; they repeated the concept map as part of the graded homework assignment on sustainability. This course was compared to a 1-credit seminar-style introductory sustainability course that focused on the social sciences aspects of sustainability over the whole semester via a series of readings and in-class discussions; these seminar students repeated the concept map as part of their final exam. The concept maps were scored by counting the number of individual concepts, cross-links, and highest hierarchy; these metrics were also combined into a total weighted score. Beyond these basic quantitative measures that apply generically to any concept map, the distribution of sustainability concepts across the three pillars of environmental, social, and economic issues was also determined. The in-class “pre” concept maps showed significant variability in students’ sustainability knowledge, ranging from 3 to 34 concepts, 0 to 16 cross-links, hierarchical depth of 1 to 7, and total scores of 9 to 192. Students in both the civil & architectural engineering class (n=72) and the sustainability seminar course (n=44) had improved sustainability concept maps after instruction. Categorical scoring found that environmental aspects comprised the highest percentage of the concepts on both the pre- and post- instruction concept maps. However, the post-instruction concept maps in both courses had significantly higher percentages of both social and economic aspects compared to the pre- concept maps. This indicates that students achieved both a richer and a more balanced understanding of sustainability. There were somewhat larger increases in the number of social and economic concepts on the concept maps of students in the sustainability seminar course as compared to the civil & architectural engineering course. This difference was expected based on the focus and greater depth of sustainability instruction in the seminar course. The concept maps seemed useful to judge the success of different instructional methods, and seemed an appropriate assessment of students’ sustainability knowledge.

Bielefeldt, A. R. (2016, June), First-Year Students' Conceptions of Sustainability as Revealed through Concept Maps Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26912

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