Project Description

During the first semester of our Design Studio class, we were challenged to design a learning experience related to sustainability, specifically about waste reduction or waste management”. This project was done in teams, so after discussing and flashing out ideas, conducting a literature review and going through a design process we decided to create an informal workshop for graduate students at Boston College.

During the workshop, we expected learners to have a relaxing and pleasant experience creating their own self-care products and sharing the experience with friends and other students, while learning about the impact some products (plastic containers, harmful chemicals, etc) can have on the environment. Learning activities included measuring their self-care products footprint, group discussions, and individual planning about how small changes could impact their budget, the environment, and their health, and creating from scratch three self-care products with affordable and sustainable materials and wrapping them up as gifts. We conjectured that through this workshop, students learn about sustainability and build dispositions towards being interested in adopting sustainable habits in a practical and fun way.

Read more to learn about the process that led us to this design!

Learning Goals & Conjectures

Learning Goals

Learners have fun making their own self-care product in a social setting and as a result they develop:

  • Curiosity about making more sustainable choices.

  • Dispositions towards making more sustainable lifestyle choices by making their own products

  • Understanding of the impact that some self-care products may have in the environment, their health and their economy.

Learning Conjecture

Learners will make their personal care products and compare the impact of self-made vs store- bought on the environment and their health, which leads them to develop curiosity about and dispositions towards making more sustainable lifestyle because we:

  • Provide resources and a guided activity to improve self-efficacy to make personal care products

  • Support learners to make connections between making their own products and its impact on sustainability

Engagement Conjecture

We invite learners to engage in a social activity, provide materials and keep the activity simple, fun and well-scaffolded: and the atmosphere relaxed and comfortable, because our population of graduate students includes many people who want to get to know other people, participate in a fun activity at school that they can take stuff home with them.

Design Decisions

This challenge, in the beginning, was too broad and open for us, we had so many options and populations to choose from in order to design a learning experience related to sustainability. In this section, you can learn more about how we come up with design decisions that helped us scope our project and design key activities and milestones.

Research and learning theories as design lenses

When we started this process, we had four main research questions we knew we needed to clarify to move forward with the design. These questions were answered in the literature. A grat resource was the NAAEE's Guide: Influencing Conservation Action: What Research Says About Environmental Literacy, Behavior, and Conservation Result (2013).

Below you can read the main findings of each question and how it influenced our design decisions.

What moves people into action?

Environmental messages that include “saving” or “helping” or offer ideas of “what you can do” ignore the fact that some cultures do not place the highest priority on the needs of others beyond themselves or families. Alternatively, the suggestion is crafting messages that focus less in the natural world and more on how desired actions would enhance people’s life. Also “depends on our team or the cultural group that shares values”. Importance of “group identity, values and priorities” in changing behavior.

Design decision:

  • Provide opportunities of reflection on how some products can impact our health, economy and environment as well as tangible solutions.

  • Collaborative environment!

  • Make the reason to change so compelling and irresistible that the target population will face whatever fears or concerns they have about changing.

How can we minimize the environmental overload?

We found that some people have developed environmental anxiety, by being too overwhelmed about what is in our hands to do to have healthier planet earth. Avoid “choice overload”: When giving people choices, less is more. Present few actions with big impact and the fewest barriers without implying that those are the only actions needed. Environmental pressure can be overwhelming to the point of paralyzing when it comes to taking actions to reduce waste.

Design decision:

  • To shift the mentality around waste reduction and environmental issues, we decided to provide a different outlook into sustainability- one that is achievable, easy and fun to do!

  • Also, we provided concrete actions they can take to start building sustainable dispositions and habits by narrowing down the scope to making their own self-care products to reduce their plastic waste on that area.

Positive or negative messages?

We learned that hope is a powerful motivator - positive messages can be sustained over time whereas negative messages. Problems should be framed as serious but manageable, giving people motivation to act. People are more likely to adopt behaviors they perceive easy, possible and rewarding (positive feeling).

Design decisions:

  • By shifting the mentality towards a more positive view, learners see the benefit of sustainable actions on the environment and themselves as a united outcome.

  • Help people feel empowered, that their actions really count. Identify and create co-benefits of the new behavior (fun, convenient, cost-saving…)

Other theories that informed our design:

Mental model building

Based on what we have learned about helping learners build mental models, it was important for us to refer to the learner's prior knowledge and experiences.

We took the design decision to include several opportunities during the workshop in which learners connected with their prior knowledge. For example, we include a section in the participants booklet to recall the products they use at home and measure their own plastic footprint based on this data. We also provided opportunities for reflection and imagination on how they'll make a personal commitment based on their own experiences.


We take a sociocultural approach by expecting learning to happen in a social context in which learners are sharing insights and building knowledge together while enjoying a shared experience in a particular context that is familiar to them and their culture as graduate students (university).

Evolution of ideas & scoping

We went through a long process of scoping and iterating on ideas. We started with a social media approach that then evolved into an informal workshop for graduate students.

Click here to learn more about this process of ideation and key milestones that helped us to narrow down the scope of our project....

  1. First, after revising the literature, we had some discussion and brainstorming we thought that social media was a right channel, because we thought we wanted to reach as much people as possible so that they could be informed about alternatives they can take for waste reduction, we wanted to get learners into action.

  2. Then, we thought "social media challenge" was a very large approach that the BC Office of Sustainability might be interested in collaborating with us to create a university challenge through their social media and in collaboration with the student group EcoPledge. After interviewing one of the stakeholders at the BC Office of Sustainability, we realized they had different goals for their Instagram account but they offered to collaborate on sharing and spreading our ideas if needed, and we couldn't reach the EcoPledge group.

  3. Afterward, we felt stuck. We revisited our goals and thought about other ways to Develop dispositions towards a more sustainable lifestyle in the BC community, we revisited the research as well. We realized that a collaborative and shared learning experience that was fun at the same time, might prompt students to start taking sustainable choices and actions. We thought that maybe if they could model these actions and continue to spread their actions with their friends and maybe share them in social media(but not strictly) could prompt others to take action too.

  4. Finally, after realizing that all the initiatives about sustainability and the EcoPledge group were directed to undergrad students, we saw the need to work with Graduate Students, and took the design decision to create an informal learning experience for Graduate Students at Boston College. We scoped our design and took out the explicit social media component, and hosted a "Sustainable self-care workshop" in which graduate students would learn how to make self-care products sustainably, while "subtly" learning and reflecting collaboratively about waste management, their plastic footprint, quality of ingredients and toxic chemicals that go into our body and the environment while they were meeting new people, sharing and experience and creating something for themselves or significant others!

Learner Population

We choose to work with Graduate Students at Boston College because this population:

  • Tend not to be the direct target for most sustainability- related events (undergraduate student clubs)

  • Prefer events where they can socialize and meet new people designed for them.

  • Might look for opportunities to learn on how to save money and concrete ideas to have a more sustainable life.

Also, we chose this population because, due to the time constraints, we wanted to engage with a population that we could access easily to test our ideas and iterate the learning experience based on the needs of real learners.

To understand variation among learners and empathize with the learner population, we conducted a semi-structured interview process, and as a result of this process, we developed three personas that helped us scope our design and address their needs and wants.

Click below to read our personas

Design process: Iterations

First Iteration

Context: The first iteration was organized with LE professors, cohort members by prototyping the whole process, including specific parts of it as well. Photos and videos can be provided. Five participants were present.

Goals: We tested our conjectures and workshop outline and materials. We wanted to know if our participant's booklet was ordered in a clear and useful way that supported the learning goals and we also wanted to know if the products that we purpose for creating were easy to do, the clarity of the instructions and the materials . Explicit feedback was given by the participants with specific details and questions answered at the end.

The conjecture map includes an outline on how we imagine the learning would happen. In this iteration we tested if the embodiment we purpose for the learning design led to the expected mediating process and expected outcomes.

Main findings from testing: The first iteration gave us an opportunity to understand how to organize manipulatives of the experience in a way that will benefit the process of the learners the most, specifically scaffolding rather than distracting, how to put more design thinking behind scaffolding the reflections connecting personal benefits to the environmental one, scaffolding the learners to wonder and question assumptions towards sustainability issues connected to the self-care products they use, promote more social interactions by shifting the organization of participant structure.

  • The environment was inviting, calming, social

  • The structure was good and the amount of social / educational component was evenly distributed

  • The scaffolding of the product making worked well

  • The amount of the products to be no more than three - finishing with the lip scrub

  • Pre-measure the ingredients to accommodate two participants at a time and work in groups

  • Have separate measuring spoons for each group of two with a measuring spoon designated to a product

  • Review and redefine cost analysis part to make it more scaffolded

Second iteration

Context: Our second iteration was open to any Graduate Student at BC. We send invitations to the event through the Graduate Student's Life Office and also it was advertised in the BC Instagram Page as a Story. 17 participants registered, but only 5 attended. Four were Graduate students from different schools, and one was an undergrad student.

Goals: The second iteration was presented to the real population learners (Graduate Students). As in the previous iteration learn that the process and the overall structure were well designed, we changed the organization of materials to be more optimal and reduce extraneous load so that participants could focus on the conversations. The process was video recorded and learners were given feedback forms to fill in, although the main test results were taken from observations.

Main findings from testing:

  • The learners engaged in the activities and provided help to other learners, were initiating conversations on the sustainability topic with the learners are were excited to share their own ideas and listen to others. The experience for them was interesting and they even had their own personal touches added to the products and the packaging.

  • The learners who were initially interested in sustainability issues were excited to participate as they needed new ways to be more sustainable. They were a great resource for others to talk about sustainability, even though they had knowledge about the topic, they still had their insights and aha’s during the workshop in all the activities- making the products, reflections on the ingredients and the amount of waste created/reduced. They found a safe way to use the self-care products they were avoiding due to them being unsustainable.

  • The undergrad student was quieter during the workshop but did still engage in conversations initiated by the others. Enjoyed making the products, but did not go through the second learning phase and did not finish the products, but I will reach out to her for feedback.

Learning Resources we designed:

Self-Care Workshop_BOOKLET .pdf

Participant's booklet structured in two main moments; create your products and reflect on the impact.

Sustainable Self-Care Workshop.pptx

Presentation that guided the facilitation of the workshop, provided information about the key moments and affordances for live interactions redirecting learners to a centimeter.

What participants said:

  • "I can enjoy my life with this products"

  • "How easy is to make products by ourselves"

  • "This is cheaper + safer! "

  • "How we can make and save on everyday products"

Workshop outline:


What we would've done differently

  • Inviting learners to engage: I would work on learning better communication strategies and messages for inviting learners to come to the workshop more thoughtfully. We prepared for a more significant number of students; although 18 of them registered, only five showed up. I realized that designing informal learning experiences also means that participants are most of the time participating because they are intrinsically motivated towards the task of understanding; that is why choosing the right messages and information to display in communication strategies is very important so that learners feel represented and connect with the knowledge and are willing to attend.

  • Variation among learners and social justice: I would aim to make learning experiences more accessible for all learners as the venue we had was not accessible at all, and we realized that by choosing a place that is not as accessible, we might unconsciously create barriers to participation and disabilities for some populations. I realized it is essential to acknowledge the possible barriers our designs can create and redesign in a way that minimizes all barriers and that all learners feel included. I realized that having the systematic process of recognizing barriers to participation as part of the design process is a crucial step toward ensuring social justice in my designs.

  • Learning Technologies: Reducing cognitive load by providing features involving learning technologies that afford visualization for the quantitative data in real time (similar to mentimeter) There was an activity that was too complex for learners in informal learning environments because it involved calculations and equations that almost all the participants skipped. I realized that the objective of the activity was they realized through perspective taking activities how much money they spent in self-care products and the impact of their plastic footprint. After analyzing our observations and their responses I realized that the objective could be addressed in a digital qualitative activity using simulations and visualization technologies with simple manipulative variables.

What we did well

  • Variation among learners: Having multiple communication and knowledge- sharing channels designed for participation and visually and verbally engagement was an asset (journal, Mentimeter, verbal prompts, and making). It helped participants share their knowledge through different means and contribute to the overall “knowledge building.”

  • The role of technology and manipulatives for making (hands-on learning materials) to help distribute the epistemic stance and balance positions of power as “knowledgeable” in a group, especially working with adults, is supported by andragogy principles. By observing the “learning by making” activities, I noticed that participants in “pairs” shared more informal conversations that helped them build knowledge together besides the activities designed for sharing knowledge compared to the participant that came alone. These helped participants build an identity as knowledge between each other.

  • Mental model building: Taking into account the affordances of an in-person workshop for collaborative learning by working in pairs or small groups to share personal experiences and solve problems. We observed that participants had a friend to share the background while doing the products, others met new people and helped each other to solve problems along the way.

  • Drawing insights from the literature on environmental education and learning theories to inform our design in different stages.

Key Takeaways

What I enjoyed learning from this experience & learning takeaways from the design process:

Throughout this design process, I realized I enjoyed designing learning experiences in "informal contexts." Moreover, I take some key insights that I would like to take into account in further designs as a learning engineer;

      • Design so that learners can share and build knowledge together based on their previous experiences and are actively constructing/making while making connections across concepts.

      • I would use/design/choose technologies that enhance collaboration and provide means of expression and knowledge sharing through multiple channels to support variation among learners and technologies afford reflections and make connections.

      • Coming up with diverse personas based on real-life research and analysis can help shape the design from a comprehensive perspective and be more suitable for various learners.

      • The importance of designing y so that we can gather the correct data that inform our learning goals, embodiment & mediating processes to understand where & how the changes have to be made & prioritize.

      • We realized that none of the participants provided "negative feedback, which implied that we need to design better and more thoughtfully the data gathering methods and tools for testing. For example; ask specific questions that would prompt learners to share how they'll improve the workshop, what they didn't like or more deeply insights into what they learned and why is it important for them.

      • We can design for informal learning, but a lot of our practices are biased by previous interaction with learning that can lead us to behave as teachers (directing too much) when I would shift patterns to a more balanced epistemic stance and help learners nurture their curiosities and identities and contribute to the ng process. I would like to know more about how to design to afford that and make it implicitly.