Can’t rely on geeks

Posted on July 26, 2009

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Last week we won an award (Best Paper NACCQ and Alison Young Cup) for our research into the sustainability understandings of computing student intakes.  The paper (here) is quite dense so here’s a summarised version of some key findings:

539 new students at Otago Polytechnic responded to a survey aimed understanding their attitudes towards sustainability.   Undertaken in the first weeks of the first semester, students had not learnt much at a tertiary level but they had, however, chosen their fields of learning- computing, engineering, nursing and so on.   Students completed the New Environmental Paradigm which identifies their worldview on a pro-ecological/anthropocentric continuum; and they were asked about sustainability values, activities and relevance.

Demographically, the 60 IT students are not significantly different to the general intake in age or ethnicity but IT has a strong male bias being 83% male whereas the institution is only 38% male.  Engineering is also male (80%) but other departments are predominantly female (Design 92% female, Midwifery 95% – includes foundation health), Nursing 97%, Occupational Therapy (93%).

Some departments are strongly pro-ecological (especially the health departments).   IT students have a slightly pro-ecological world view but are strongly anthropocentric in some areas:  beliefs include that the balance of nature is strong enough to cope with impacts, that humans will work out how to control nature, that the ecological crisis has been exaggerated, that humans are meant to rule over nature.

The worldview of IT is different to some other departments – specifically the health departments.    A large effect here is the gender effect.   Gender, though, is not the whole story.   Business (70% female) is not significantly different in its worldview to IT.    There are no significant differences between IT (total) and non-IT males.

Respondents were asked to rank a set of potential issues.   Priorities for IT students are largely the same as the total intake: protecting environment is the highest priority. IT students are more concerned about strengthening the economy (p=0.02) and limiting population growth (p=0.07) and less concerned about creating a fairer society (p=0.03) than the total intake.

While IT respondents were familiar with general and popularly known concepts – renewable resources, greenhouse effect etc – they were less confident with ecological concepts and specific principles such as carrying capacity, the precautionary principle. Specific environmental science concepts would have to be taught to enable students to undertake an essay along the lines of  “discuss the impacts for computing as described in the Millennium report”.

Incoming students from across the institution reported limited understanding of indigenous concepts of sustainability.

While the majority of IT students see the relevance of sustainability to their study, those that don’t are quite vociferous in their incredulity at the suggestion.    Other disciplines have similar percentages of “not relevant” but none showed the strength of feeling IT students demonstrated.

Respondents were asked to explain their answer about the relevance of sustainability to their discipline. Some IT students saw that it had a very low relevance:

“IT is about humans and technology, not humans and the “environment.
“We are studying IT! The complete opposite of nature”
“We only use paper and computers”

Others saw a little more relevance:

“It is something worth considering but not relevant enough to “warrant drastic action

Those who described a medium relevance came from two camps. Some had self interest motives

“It’ll put food on my table in the future”.

Others saw the need to reduce IT’s own impact

“IT consumes a lot of natural resources”

while others saw potential for a wider impact:

“doesn’t directly influence environment but can create media to raise awareness”.

Those who saw high relevance also described two aspects. Some described computing’s impact:

“computing has a high carbon footprint”

while others could see an impact on computing:

“the resources needed in the industry might run out i.e. for building the p.c. and internals”.

Some looked past these considerations to a wider statement:

“No matter what field we go into if the environment is disrupted enough to cause flooding eg sea level rise and greenhouse gases to grow then it is important to recognise the implications”.

Similar reasons were given by those who argued for very high relevance:

“because everything in this world is relevant to sustainability”
“I regard it as high in my chosen field as if there were no sustainability, I would have no career”.

There are really interesting patterns in the worldview and career relevance relationship.  IT has anthropocentric worldviews and sees low relevance of sustainability.   Business students (despite being mostly female) share these characteristics.   The health fields  have people with strongest pro-ecological worldviews, but don’t make the connection between this and their careers.  The anthropocentric engineers, meanwhile, see sustainability as strongly relevant to their careers.  These patterns are complex and not well understood but clearly, different pedagogical strategies would be needed for these different groups.

IT students have a particularly low desire to be involved in improving the environment/ community and but are split as to their level of skills to contribute.  This is an area that needs more work in understanding factors at play here. Despite having a low pro-ecological worldview, engineering students reported high desire yet similarly anthropocentric business students had a low desire.

There is much variety in the extent to which people undertake (or are prepared to undertake) sustainability related actions.  Surprisingly few students reported seeking information for example, and a surprisingly high number of students would not make a report regarding unsustainable activity.   IT students report a high resistance to trying to encourage someone else to change an activity or practice that you thought was harmful to the environment. This is of concern as we try to move beyond our own footprint to using computing as an enabler for a wider sustainability.

In response to a scenario, incoming IT students seem to be particularly strident that they would follow instructions even if a task is unsustainable. This seems at odds with the characterisation of our students as independently thinking geeks. Instead, a substantial number of them suggest they would do an unsustainable task on basis of disempowerment with a power relationship.   Fortunately, a reassuring 50% would at least talk about it. There is no right answer to this scenario, but articulating appropriate responses should be part of education that hopes to produce sustainable practitioners.

Many authors have identified gender issues in computing and computing education (Bair and Cohoon 2004).  Gender differences in environmental attitudes have been extensively researched and reviewed (Zelezny et al. 2000).   Research since 2000 suggests that women report more environmental concern than men and greater participation in pro-environmental activity. The introduction of sustainability concepts into IT curricula may help to address the traditional gender imbalance in IT intakes by making the IT world more appealing to women.   Gender differences in pro-environmental stance in the Otago Polytechnic are marked and no doubt contribute greatly to departmental/programme differences in student characteristics.   The combined worldview for IT is not distinguishable from the overall male NEP – the 17% female students are not making a substantial impact on the overall worldview of IT.

The crucial sentence in computing education for sustainability is “Our goal is that every graduate may think and act as a “sustainable practitioner”.   This sustainable practitioner means more than technical skills –  we have to come to terms with worldviews, affective learning and action competence. This research has made a start in these understandings as they relate to computing students.

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