Sustaining Our World

Central inspires students, faculty and alumni to make an impact.


Central’s focus on sustainability includes everything from organic gardening to coursework on social justice.

Central’s focus on sustainability includes everything from organic gardening to coursework on social justice.

What do you do when a way of life becomes a buzzword? That’s the case with the term “sustainability,” which has become a trendy way of talking about a host of issues and initiatives. But at Central, sustainability has been part of the conversation since the beginning. “It wasn’t called sustainability, but even back in the 1930s students and the administration were thinking about these issues. At that time some students grew produce that was accepted in lieu of tuition,” says Brian Campbell, Central’s director of sustainability.

Campbell was hired in 2015 to drive sustainability efforts at Central, his position partly funded by an award from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Central’s established tradition of conservation was a big part of what drew him to the college. “There’s a clear recognition that we’re already doing a lot,” he says. The efforts are numerous and involve many areas of the college — so many that it’s hard to even single out projects and say, “This one is about sustainability.” The idea is woven into nearly everything that goes on.

In the academic world, every student takes a course related to sustainability, which can be based in a number of departments. They have titles like Globalization, Development and Social Change; Environmental Economics; and Community, Consumer and Global Health. Currently, about 40 classes qualify. Central also offers a minor in global sustainability, the first of its kind in Iowa.

But what is sustainability? Campbell says it’s much more than recycling or biking to work. “It’s not just caring about the environment,” he says, “but it’s also about social justice, the well being of different groups and how we take care of the places we live. Sustainability is a way to see those connections.”

One of the challenges with so broad a topic is making the ideas tangible for students. Campbell wants to bring sustainability into day-to-day life through questions such as: Where do we get our food? How are we connected to the energy grid? Where does our waste go? “In thinking through the details, we see how we are connected to much broader systems,” he says. For example, Campbell recently took a group of faculty to tour a local recycling facility. The idea is that by seeing how a recycling plant actually operates, faculty will be able to better convey to students how what happens on a small scale — one person tossing a bottle into a recycling bin — connects to massive global systems that process and sell recycled material around the world.

Planting trees on campus is just one of many ways students practice sustainability outside the classroom.

Planting trees on campus is just one of many ways students practice sustainability outside the classroom.

Two of the areas Campbell is focusing on right now are food and energy. Departments across campus are working to educate students on where their food comes from and how to build a stronger local food economy. Campbell’s office is partnering with dining director Richard Phillips to use more locally produced food and to bring farmers to campus once a month. Central’s organic garden is also expanding, providing more space for teaching about how to grow and prepare healthy foods.

All of this work ties into the college’s academic theme for 2015-16: Year of Global Sustainability. The common reading book, read across campus, is “Where Am I Eating: An Adventure through the Global Food Economy.” The author, Kelsey Timmerman, will visit campus in September to participate in teach-ins and presentations.

Smart energy is also advancing on campus, as 80-90 connected energy meters are scheduled for installation in buildings. They will provide real-time data on energy use, which will be sent to a central website and presented for analysis. The hope is that detailed energy use statistics can be used to encourage awareness about usage patterns—perhaps even leading to competitions among dorms to see who can use the least amount of energy.

The list of sustainable projects could go on: LEED certified buildings, green rooftop, student projects in the “green pods” aka McKee Hall, native flora plantings around buildings, a trayless cafeteria and energy-efficient vehicle fleets. It’s all part of a commitment to being good stewards of the available resources.

“We’re not just talking about it in the classroom,” says Jim Zaffiro, professor of political science and a champion of sustainability on campus. “We are modeling our commitment to sustainability. It’s fair to say Central is a national leader in sustainability education across the curriculum.” He cites the many opportunities for students to go beyond class work, for instance conducting research on sustainability and working with community partners on issues related to social justice.

The idea is that students will take what they’ve learned and apply it in their chosen profession. Zaffiro says, “We’re saying, ‘go, become whatever you want, and use this extra training to make an impact.’”

Solar Renaissance

A company forges a new path in renewable energy.

Solar modules from Silicon Energy are designed to fit into a structure's design.

Solar modules from Silicon Energy are designed to fit into a structure’s design.

Everything in Gary Shaver’s life seems to be preparing him for this moment. As president of Silicon Energy, a company near Seattle that manufactures high-quality solar modules, Shaver is facing a challenge: how to make people understand that not all solar is created equal.

Silicon Energy manufactures American-made solar modules and is a prime example of a company at the forefront of what Shaver calls enviro-economics — “the opportunity to draw environmental and economic causes together,” he says.

How did this 1989 Central grad end up at the helm of a solar company that wants to change the world? His path is in some ways extraordinary, but in other ways perfectly captures the essence of a liberal arts education that allows for lifelong learning and constant adaptation.

Shaver grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, and majored in biology at Central. He studied abroad in Wales. After college, Shaver spent two years teaching English in China and studied Chinese, then moved to Japan where he lived for five years, again teaching English and studying Japanese. After returning to the U.S. he completed a law degree at Seattle University, also picking up a master’s in international business at the same time. However, Shaver says, “It became clear to me that while the practice of law is an important thing, it wasn’t going to be enough.” Shaver wanted to “do something that’s good for the world.”

He was restless to make an impact, a feeling he remembered from his days back in college as president of SCATE (Students Concerned About The Environment). Shaver has always been drawn to environmental topics, and during law school he worked with a professor to write a paper for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the protection of water facilities under international law. The paper focused on how, in the case of a pooled resource, like water, “historically very few people extract the wealth from that supply using the labors of the many,” Shaver says. He became interested in the idea of social justice and how resources are allocated and started asking the question, “What’s a resource that can’t be controlled by a small group to the detriment of the majority of society?”

He worked on legislation in the state of Washington to develop local renewable energy manufacturing, and when it didn’t pass he took a job as general manager of SunEarth, a solar thermal manufacturer in Southern California. Then, the legislation in Washington passed, and he got the call: “How would you like to run a solar company?” Shaver said yes.

His company, Silicon Energy, set to work building a highly durable and innovative PV (photovoltaics) module. Manufactured in the U.S., it has won international awards for innovation and contribution to the solar industry and outperformed all other modules in testing at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). It is also designed to be attractive, fitting into a home or business’ setting through integration into things like awnings, patio covers or carports. The modules are very strong — they can withstand category five hurricanes.

But one of the challenges with solar is that today modules are viewed as a commodity, though they are not in fact all the same. Shaver is now seeking investors for the company as he tries to change the perception of solar. The industry is at a transition point, Shaver says, as people decide what matters more to them: getting solar extremely cheap, but accepting job losses in U.S. manufacturing, as well as having to buy solar from countries that produce the modules using dirty energy—or paying more for a U.S.-produced, durable product.

In his efforts to change the conversation on solar, Shaver uses skills gained during his undergraduate education at Central, as well as his law and business degrees. “I draw on my biology,” he says. “It’s less about the content and more about the critical thinking skills you develop.” He also says, “Central was a good school to go to — it was really about the professors who were there.” He credits Don and Maxine Huffman for their support, including a summer job taking care of the couple’s home in Pella. Shaver also says professors Alan Kopsky, John Bowles and Arthur Bosch are people “who really stick in my head throughout my life.”

Shaver believes his background allows him to engage with a variety of people and topics, including the technical areas of his company. “I can go into an engineering meeting, and even though I’m not an engineer I can understand what’s going on and be able to engage with it in a meaningful manner,” he says. “In business there are some very intelligent, very engineering-focused people, but they may not have balance. And I think that’s where the liberal arts come in. A good liberal arts education can provide a lot of balance that I’ve found valuable.”

Similarly, it’s the ability to balance economics and environment that makes Silicon Energy different from its competitors. And Gary Shaver is just the person to help America see it.

Restoring Iowa

Grads get their hands dirty to maintain natural diversity.

You could call Melanie Louis and Ryan Schmidt outdoorsy. But that description really doesn’t begin to cover it. The two Central alums, who both graduated in 2012, have made similar careers out of their love for the outdoors, for Iowa and for conservation.

Melanie Louis

Melanie Louis

Louis and Schmidt work for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a non-profit land trust dedicated to protecting and restoring Iowa’s land, water and wildlife. They work in the land stewardship department, where sustainability means preserving and stewarding Iowa’s natural ecosystems.

Louis says, “We are focused on nature itself and restoring Iowa’s natural landscape. We’re sustaining the diversity of Iowa instead of allowing it to become overgrown with invasive and non-native species.”

Experiences as summer interns with the foundation hooked both alums and encouraged them to consider working with the organization full time. You could say the 12- week internship experience was a full immersion in the natural heritage of Iowa.

“We actually camped in tents and we cooked out at a fire ring with camping stoves,” says Louis, who majored in biology at Central. “There were nine of us in my intern crew, and we slept, ate and worked together during the week.” Work included prairie restoration such as cutting down trees and pulling invasive plant species. The teams worked to restore remnant prairies and open up oak savannas all over the state.

This sort of “roughing it” existence may not be for everyone, but Louis and Schmidt thrived on it. “It was absolutely a life changing experience for me,” Louis says. “Knowing I was making an impact, both as an individual and as a group. You grow to love the land. I came to appreciate Iowa in a completely different way.”

Schmidt agrees. “The internship solidified the path I’d been on track for,” he says. An environmental studies major with a biology minor, he knew when he started at Central that he wanted a job connected with the outdoors, but he says before the internship, “I had no idea about this nonprofit world. I fell in love with the organization’s function and the work.”

Ryan Schmidt

Ryan Schmidt

Schmidt learned about the internship opportunity from professors Anya Butt (biology) and Russ Benedict (biology), who encouraged him to apply. He says throughout his time at Central, personal relationships made the difference in his education. “One of the biggest things I learned at Central, through work-study and spending time with Dr. Benedict, is the ability to build relationships and connections with the people around you,” he says. “There’s always somebody who’s been down the same road as you who can give advice, so the more people you know and the more connections you make, the better off you’ll be.”

Schmidt puts this skill to work as he builds relationships with landowners around the state. He also specializes in prescribed fire for the foundation, working to plan and conduct fires as a natural land management tool.

One of Louis’ favorite parts of her job is the chance to work with interns in the field. She says it’s meaningful to see their work produce results in the landscape. “A lot of the work gets really hard and hot in the summer, but we come back to the idea that we’re restoring Iowa and its natural integrity,” she says.

“It’s a series of small steps,” says Schmidt. “We restore a little bit of land at a time. We’re not going to save the world today or five years from now, but we’re taking small steps in the right direction.”

Climate Custodian

Helping Iowa reach its goals for emissions.

Marnie Stein ’96 could be called the climate custodian of Iowa. She works independently to write the state’s greenhouse gas inventory each year. This report is required by the Iowa legislature and calculates all the greenhouse gas emissions for the entire state of Iowa for the year. It’s a mammoth task, requiring data from all sectors, such as agriculture, transportation, business and utilities.

Marnie Stein

Marnie Stein

Stein works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as a senior environmental specialist. She’s worked for the DNR since shortly after graduation, and over the years climate change has become her specialty.

Stein was among the earliest environmental studies majors at Central. “I was originally going to be a chemistry major,” she says, “but as soon as they developed the new major while I was at Central I decided to switch.” She became interested in environmental issues while studying abroad in London, where she interned for Friends of the Earth, a global organization dedicated to improving the environment.

Originally from Aurora, Iowa, Stein came to Central specifically for the study abroad program, but she also found opportunities to be involved in SCATE (Students Concerned About The Environment) and participated in writing an environmental plan for the college as part of her senior capstone class with professor Louise Zaffiro. The project was excellent training for her current role because, as Stein says, “We were working together with people of different points of view. We were coming together to meet the goals.” Today her goal is to help Iowa stakeholders on their way to meeting federal carbon reduction targets.

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  • Bob Sutton


    6:39 am on October 10, 2015

    Fifteen years ago my wife Lynda and I and a landowner of 17acres developed a plan for a sustainable agricultural operation on 17 acres of farmland in Jamestown RI. The idea was to create an all volunteer organization that focused entirely on the idea that access to good, fresh food should not be exclusively for those that can afford it. It was also the goal of our operation to grow and distribute this food in a manner that minimized the impact on the natural resources of our Island community and provided fresh vegetables without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides and commercial fertilizers. The farm grows on about 5 acres of land and a one-hundred foot long high-tunnel greenhouse, develops its own solar electrical power, uses only water from rain captured in three cisterns, has a totally compostable toilet, composts tons of leaves annually, practices crop rotation, has a small flock of chickens and several bee hives and generally operates in an environmentally friendly manner. We are an all-volunteer operation with revenues from donations and a Saturday morning farm stand and distribute to 5 food pantries and meal sites throughout Rhode Island. We distribute in excess of 12 to 13 tons of food annually to those in need. If you wish more information we have a web site: and a facebook page ( Jamestown Community Farm)