Mission Sustainability

Linda Copman April 10, 2023

Mission Sustainability: everyone plays a part in climate action

By Linda Copman

Residential sustainability leaders at Orientation 2019

Before they arrive on campus, incoming Cornell students have an assignment to complete. “Mission Sustainability” is a one-hour, online module designed to orient new students to the many faces of sustainability at Cornell—from composting in residence halls, to powering campus with solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power, to bike sharing.

Introduced in fall 2020, Mission Sustainability is part of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). In addition to the university’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2035, the CAP includes an ambitious goal to advance sustainability knowledge and skillsets for all students. The Mission Sustainability module is part of new student orientation, assigned to every incoming student as part of their to-do list before they arrive on campus.

Fact: Since its launch three years ago, a total of 10,667 Cornell students have completed the module, or 68% of all undergraduates.

“As of this summer, all undergraduate students will have been tasked with completing the course before entering Cornell,” says Kimberly Anderson, co-chair of the Sustainable Cornell Council’s Education and Engagement Student Literacy Working Group, which created the Mission Sustainability course and is charged with monitoring progress toward meeting the CAP’s 100 percent climate literacy goal.

Fact: 98.5% of new students report they are concerned about the state of the environment, and less than 2% of new students are "not at all concerned.”

In August 2022, the Sustainability Cornell Council released a summary report of Mission Sustainability survey data collected to date. A key takeaway is that incoming Cornell students have “relatively strong sustainability attitudes and environmental justice beliefs”—a finding that holds true across colleges.

“Everyone plays a part, and anyone can offer a new perspective or fresh ideas.”
–Mission Sustainability student reflection

Everyone plays a part

Residential compost manager at a Cornell Orientation event

Mission Sustainability includes a video highlighting Cornell faculty working across disciplines to address climate change. New students learn about the sustainability related courses offered in every college, to help prepare them to tackle the full spectrum of climate challenges—from engineering better batteries to designing more sustainable buildings, and from developing market-based incentives to hasten the transition to green energy to breeding more resilient food crops that can withstand warming temperatures. 

The online module encourages students to identify sustainability related courses within (and beyond) their college and major, and to consider which of these courses they might be interested in taking while at Cornell.

“One of the big goals of the course is for students to understand that we all have a role to play in creating sustainable change at Cornell and beyond,” Kim says. “To succeed, we need collaborative expertise from all areas of study.”

 “In high school, climate change was only discussed in our science classes. I had to think about what an English professor and an economist could bring to the team. All these policies and plans to help the environment involve money, so they require an economist. And imagination is needed to think up these grand ideas, which is something that writers and English professors usually do not lack.”
–Mission Sustainability student reflection

Students at Spring Fest

Students are also introduced to useful tips for living more sustainably at Cornell, including where to fill their reusable water bottles, how to sort and reduce waste (including in Cornell Dining Halls), and low-emission transportation options on and around campus.

Fact: Cornell’s tap water is safe to drink, monitored daily by a team of experts, and has better water quality ratings than luxury bottled water companies.

They are invited to get involved in one of the more than 40 campus clubs with a sustainability theme—ranging from the Beekeeping Club to Anabel’s Grocery, Engineers for a Sustainable World, and Greeks Go Green. If they don’t find the club they’re looking for, the module encourages them to start their own.

 “I am excited to study fashion with a focus on sustainability, and to get involved in various clubs related to sustainability (I signed up for 6)!”
–Mission Sustainability student reflection

Students checking out sustainability clubs at ECO Fest 2022

As a fun way to follow up the online learning, Cornell’s in-person orientation includes a Sustainability Goosechase—a light-hearted competition where participants take action, use resources, and practice sustainability habits covered in the Mission Sustainability module. 

“We have hundreds of students engaged in sustainability projects and volunteer work on and off campus, and we have seen participation in clubs increase over the past few years,” Anderson observes. For example, the number of students volunteering to serve as residential compost managers has more than doubled over the past three years, since the module was introduced.

Living sustainably at Cornell

Residential compost managers distribute compost buckets during Orientation 2022

The Mission Sustainability module also asks students to respond to a series of survey questions designed to assess their climate literacy. These questions help to establish a baseline of students’ knowledge about the causes of the climate crisis and potential solutions. At the end of the module, students are asked to share a personal reflection and record their takeaways from the assignment.

These questions have helped to uncover common misconceptions about the drivers of the problem. For example, fewer than 60 percent of new students chose the correct answer to this question:

“Which of these activities has the largest environmental impact?”

  • Keeping a cell phone charger plugged into an outlet for 12 hours
  • Producing one fast-food quarter-pound hamburger
  • Producing one fast-food chicken sandwich
  • Flying in a commercial airplane from Washington, D.C. to China

The correct answer is the flight, but the hamburger was the most common incorrect response.

Similarly, when asked which of the following behaviors would contribute the most to a sustainable lifestyle, more than 40 percent chose incorrectly:

  • Recycling all recyclable packaging
  • Reducing consumption of all products
  • Buying products labeled 'eco' or 'green'
  • Buying the newest products available

The correct choice is reducing overall consumption, but recycling was the most common incorrect response.

Using this insight, the Mission Sustainability team (Sustainable Cornell Council’s Education and Engagement Student Literacy Working Group, which is comprised of Cornell faculty, staff, and students with expertise across many disciplines) decided to tweak the module to focus more on ways to reduce consumption. The team incorporated five short video clips into Mission Sustain ability—including this video focused specifically on reducing consumption.

The team also added concrete suggestions for ways to decrease consumption while at Cornell. These include buying used dorm/room supplies from the annual Dump & Run sale, using reusable bottles and meal containers, rethinking purchases, sharing and repairing, and more.

In evaluating the impact of the new content, Kim explains her team has found that it has been very effective in educating students about the importance of reducing consumption (vs. recycling). Data collected in 2022 showed that 57% of students in the sample answered the “reducing consumption” survey question correctly before taking the course, compared with 88% who answered the question correctly after completing the course.

“What really impressed me were the steps Cornell has already taken. With 25+ green buildings, a hydroelectric power plant, plant-based food, and 20% of electricity coming from renewable sources, Cornell has made tremendous strides to become eco-friendly. It is an impressive task to change the ‘normal’ and implement new ideas/techniques to campus.”
–Mission Sustainability student reflection

The new content was created in partnership with students enrolled in ENGL 3795 Communicating Climate Change, taught by Caroline Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities and a member of the Mission Sustainability team. For the past two years, students in this class have worked to improve the module. For example, the five new videos were made by Caroline’s students for their peers.

In 2023, the team will be incorporating more recommendations from Caroline’s class, including rethinking how key topics like Cornell’s water quality are covered.

“Interviews conducted by the students revealed a lack of student knowledge around Cornell’s safe and highly filtered water,” Kim says, “and the students have suggested ways to improve messaging and engagement on this topic.”