UA Sustain releases fall undergraduate survey findings

Respondents support MIT engagement in sustainability education and climate research

The MIT Undergraduate Association Committee on Sustainability (UA Sustain) released the findings of their Fall 2020 undergraduate sustainability survey. The results, compiled by the 2021 IAP Survey Analysis Group, chaired by Carolina Gutierrez ’23, Kelly Wu ’21, and Megan Xu ’22 and led by Hanna Tuomi ’21, were prepared in conjunction with other groups on campus, including, but not limited to, the MIT Office of Sustainability, Environmental Solutions Initiative, and the Student Sustainability Coalition.

The survey was open for two weeks from Nov. 29 to Dec. 13, distributed through the mailing list for all undergraduates, and received 934 responses (approximately 21.5% of undergraduates), with the highest response rate coming from the Class of 2024, followed by juniors, sophomores, and then seniors.

The report contains summaries of the survey results from the five direct-question sections, the open-ended question, and conclusions drawn from the responses as a whole. Across the sections, there were “a few main themes supported by” the data, according to the report.

First, “respondents care significantly about the energy aspect of sustainability,” evidenced by “significant participation in MIT Divest, day-to-day concern with reducing energy consumption, significant interest in MIT’s relationship with fossil fuel companies, and strong support for fossil fuel divestment.”

Respondents also reportedly felt that MIT “does a good job” providing sustainability education and “furthering climate research.” While sustainability is not a core feature of students’ class schedules and does not play a “significant role” in shaping students’ careers, respondents “frequently” sought out information on these topics.

Finally, respondents felt strongly that MIT should “further engage in sustainability and climate action as they relate to government and industry,” while acknowledging that MIT “adequately” engages in sustainability from education and research perspectives. Respondents also indicated that “they care about” MIT’s climate action at an institutional perspective; the report mentions waste reduction strategies in particular.

The first of the five direct-question sections — campus community — sought to gauge undergraduates’ knowledge of and involvement in groups under the MIT sustainability umbrella. The main takeaways from these questions, in which students were asked to identify sustainability groups they knew of and might have participated in, were that “respondents had a similar level of familiarity and participation between the most well-known MIT-led and student-led sustainability groups,” yet since more student-led groups were identified, “total membership in these groups is higher than that of MIT-led groups.”

The second section — campus sustainability — examined interest in institutional sustainability and preferences for MIT sustainability policy. More than half of respondents said “they had searched for information” about fossil fuel “investment/divestment,” “sustainability education opportunities,” or “sustainability research” with regards to MIT. Respondents also “collectively” felt that “energy usage” and “sustainability research” should be higher on the priority list. While “sustainability education opportunities” was a frequently searched topic for respondents, “not many” believed MIT should prioritize it as an institution “relative to other topic areas.”

In the third section — external relations, divestment, and the climate action plan — the report summarizes the respondents’ views on the “ideal relationship” between the Institute and external stakeholders. An “overwhelming number of respondents” (87.4% of 769 respondents) support MIT action in regards to external politics, while being unsure of “how successfully the institution has reduced its carbon emissions and worked with the government to accelerate action.”

The fourth section — career choices — examined undergraduates’ engagement with sustainability career development opportunities and students’ consideration of sustainability when planning for careers. 26% of respondents “strongly disagreed” that their choice of major was influenced by the desire to pursue/learn about sustainability; 23% answered “somewhat disagree”; 21% were neutral; 19% “somewhat agreed”; 11% “strongly agreed.” A plurality of students “somewhat agreed” with sustainability being a factor in career planning.

The final section — personal sustainability — sought to understand how respondents practiced sustainability in their day-to-day lives. Respondents “preferred to engage in personal sustainability as opposed to higher-commitment strategies such as careers or advocacy.” Over half of respondents felt that lack of knowledge of sustainability hindered their practicing sustainability, though “time, effort, lack of resources, and financial reasons” were listed as obstacles by “over a third of respondents.” Respondents that felt that living on campus affected their sustainability felt that “being on campus improved” their sustainability.

UA Sustain will carry out additional data analysis of these responses during the Spring, and “welcomes questions, feedback, or requests for collaboration,” which can be directed to