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UBC Undergraduate Research

Stimulating University Student Engagement in Climate Action : An Analysis for UBC’s Climate Action Plan 2030 (CAP 2030) Korbynn, Maya; Crossley, Frank; Serrano, Maria Paula


In 2020, The University of British Columbia (UBC) was ranked by The Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings as the leading university in Climate Action of the world (THE, 2020). The attainment of this status stems from the actions the university has taken with regards to climate change, in particular, its 2019 Climate Emergency Declaration which was a result of years of student activism that demanded that the institution commit to becoming one of Canada’s leading voices in the fight against climate change (UBC, 2019). This declaration laid the foundation for a partnership to be made with the UBC community in order to develop a comprehensive emergency response (Climate Emergency Task Force, 2020). The development of UBC’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2030 is a part of this response. UBC’s CAP 2030 will determine the path UBC takes over the next decade to reach their “net zero by 2050” emissions target (UBC, 2021). Given past challenges in engaging with students (ibid) and the fact that climate plans impact future students the most, The CAP 2030 development team is focusing on improving student involvement in its co-creation process. This research project is a response to that renewed focus. This research has an even narrower scope due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed the landscape of public engagement and prioritized virtual engagement methods for the foreseeable future - therefore this research has a specific emphasis on virtual engagement measures. To investigate increasing student engagement by virtual means, a three part research strategy was implemented that involved three types of data collection methods: a literature review of academic and institutional literature related to student engagement and climate action plans, an online survey for UBC students on climate action engagement, and semi-structured interviews with key contacts who work directly with students in climate engagement organizations. Research participants were secured using a network sampling method, which allowed us to access a larger sample size than we would have using random sampling methods. The survey asked UBC students about several topics - including their climate interests, how they perceived UBC’s role in sustainability initiatives as well as about what incentives would encourage them to get involved. It received 33 unique responses. The interviews focused on gaining information on effective student engagement strategies, the challenges to transitioning to digital engagement, and what virtual technologies have been effective for student engagement. Researchers interviewed 4 people in three interview sessions (one group interview, two individual interviews) via phone and Zoom. Our analysis found that while students generally perceived UBC’s role in providing sustainability initiatives in a positive light, there were several barriers that prevented them from participating fully, including a lack of time and the feeling of having no effect on policy . In particular, our surveys found that incentives (be it financial or academic) show significant potential in drawing students into engaging. Our interviews provided richer information due to their semi-structured format. One takeaway is that students may have partially lost interest in engaging due to “tokenism by engagement” - where students are engaged at the end of the process purely as a means of checking a box. The interviewees emphasized that universities must embed students earlier in the policy-formation process for them to truly want to be involved. One interview also revealed that the common perception of students as being “hard-to-reach” may be misguided; successful engagement with students relies on working around student deadlines, using multiple methods to attract different styles of engagement, and most crucially, having tailored and relevant messaging on the engagement process. Missing one or more of these aspects, particularly not taking into account student schedules, can easily give the perception of being “hard-to-reach”. Overall, there is both a desire for and an effective need for more participatory methods of student engagement - including power-sharing, collaborative, and co-design processes. Virtual engagement methods can be effective, but their effectiveness very much depends on the ability to implement reciprocal engagement processes, the platforms on which they are used (the more the better), the engagement timeline, and the quality and relevance of the messaging. There is also significant academic and practical evidence that indicates that having longer engagement strategies that start earlier on in the project definition process, and that involve multiple “meetings” with opportunities for feedback and revision, will increase Based on our research, we hope that future studies will be conducted that will build off our work, and focus on the specific questions: (1) which incentives best encourage participation?, (2) how can students fit into the climate policy formation process at an earlier stage?, and (3) how can the engagement process be adapted to fit the needs of the students? Disclaimer: “UBC SEEDS provides students with the opportunity to share the findings of their studies, as well as their opinions, conclusions and recommendations with the UBC community. The reader should bear in mind that this is a student project/report and is not an official document of UBC. Furthermore readers should bear in mind that these reports may not reflect the current status of activities at UBC. We urge you to contact the research persons mentioned in a report or the SEEDS Coordinator about the current status of the subject matter of a project/report.”

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