Mental models research to inform community outreach for a campus recycling program

Lauren Olson (Office of Campus Sustainability, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)
Joseph Arvai (Haskayne School of Business, and The Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment, and Economy, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada and Decision Research, Eugene, Oregon, USA)
Laurie Thorp (Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE), Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Publication date: 20 September 2011



The purpose of this paper is to develop a better understanding of the state of knowledge of students and faculty on the Michigan State University (MSU) campus; identify relevant gaps in knowledge and misconceptions about recycling; and provide recommendations regarding how these gaps and misconceptions may be addressed through education and outreach.


Using mental models analysis, the current state of knowledge possessed by students and faculty was compared with a comprehensive inventory of on‐campus recycling procedures and opportunities.


By combining data from individual mental models elicited from students and faculty members, an overall mental model that depicted the frequency with which subjects understood MSU‐specific recycling concepts was developed. This composite model, and the accompanying statistical analysis, revealed important gaps – on part of both students and faculty – in understanding for several key recycling concepts that are relevant to established campus‐based waste reduction practices.


The mental models approach, which to the authors' knowledge has yet to be applied to campus sustainability initiatives, provides program managers and outreach specialists with a constructive and transparent opportunity to develop and deploy program information that builds on existing knowledge while also meeting the new information needs of key stakeholders.



Olson, L., Arvai, J. and Thorp, L. (2011), "Mental models research to inform community outreach for a campus recycling program", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 322-337.

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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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