Mother Earth’s Secret Weapon: Girl Scouts

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Teach them how to save energy, and their parents will follow.

By Tom Jacobs

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A Girl Scouts sells cookies in New York City. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

There are many simple things we can all do to save energy, but few of us bother to ever learn about them, let alone change our behavior. Fortunately, new research points to a potent secret weapon in the battle to get people to act more responsibly: their nine- and 10-year-old girls.

According to a study in the journal Nature Energy, a program in which Girl Scouts were taught how to save energy at home had lasting results, changing the behavior of both the young ladies and their parents. What’s more, many of these new habits remained seven to eight months following the training.

“With one in every two women in the U.S. having been a Girl Scout member at some point in her life,” such programs have “the potential to impact the energy-saving behaviors of many U.S. families,” writes a research team led by Oregon State University sociologist Hilary Boudet.

Their study featured 313 Girl Scouts from 30 Northern California troops, along with 303 of their parents. The girls, nearly all of whom were in fourth or fifth grade, participated in five 50- to 60-minute lessons, which took place during consecutive troop meetings.

Whoever came up with the idea of using Girl Scouts as role models was one smart cookie.

“The lessons revolved around creating a videotaped newscast, in which the Girl Scouts played the roles of news anchors, investigative reporters, and energy experts,” the researchers report. “They rehearsed, modeled, and ultimately filmed the energy-saving behaviors learned in each lesson.”

About half of each session was devoted to creating the newscast. In addition, the girls reported on the energy-saving activities they had engaged in, and pledged to adopt other specific behaviors before the next session.

For one-half of the girls, these lessons dealt with at-home energy savings, while for the others, they were focused on food and transportation (such as taking public transportation, and eating less meat). At the end of the program, and again up to eight months later, both the girls and one of their parents filled out surveys noting specific ways they were saving energy.

The researchers report girls who focused on home usage “significantly increased their overall residential energy-saving behaviors,” compared to their counterparts in the transportation-oriented group. Importantly, their parents did likewise.

While both parents and children fell back into some old bad habits over the next eight months, they still conserved more energy than they had before the program began. Long-term behavioral changes included plugging chargers into power strips, and then turning those strips off at night (for the girls), and adjusting refrigerator temperatures (for both girls and parents).

Unfortunately, the transportation-oriented version of the program did not have the same positive effect. The researchers believe this may reflect the fact that the girls had little or no control over such factors as whether reliable public transportation is available in their neighborhood.

Nevertheless, these finding are exciting, as they suggest well-designed programs can change the behavior of both kids and their families. Whoever came up with the idea of using Girl Scouts as role models was one smart cookie.

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