September 20, 2017 | Hannah Ebeling

Calvin Energy Recovery Fund projects, like the retrofitting of lights in the Huizenga Tennis & Track Center, have saved the college thousands of dollars in energy costs.

Calvin College received a silver rating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. The STARS rating system spans all areas of campus sustainability and includes performance indicators and criteria organized into four categories: academics, engagement, operations and planning and administration.

Calvin is one of 420 institutions across the globe that have gone through the STARS rating system. The college has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education—the facilitators of the STARS program—since 2008, but this is only the second year Calvin has participated in STARS.

Sustainable practices receive silver score

“Calvin’s campus is a living laboratory that is highly valued and recognized,” said Becky Haney, economics professor and STARS program liaison. “This silver rating is a payoff from investments in sustainable practices initiated by many individuals across the campus in the last several years.” Haney said the Calvin environmental assessment grant, established in 1997, launched sustainability across the curriculum. “It provided an outlet for students to use campus as a laboratory for research projects,” she said.

Haney believes the campus-wide effort towards making Calvin more sustainable is another reason the college was able to achieve a silver rating. “Sustainability and climate change are not issues that can be solved by one type of person, it has to be a team effort that cuts across the disciplines.”

Success due to campus-wide engagement 

Student life has been a huge leader in our efforts to be more sustainable,” said Haney. Residence Life sponsors student leadership positions called “sustainability coordinators” who promote sustainable life choices in the residence halls. “Sustainability coordinators help educate their peers about sustainability, through having informal conversations, promoting campus events related to sustainability, and planning Kill-a-watt, a sustainability program during interim,” said Becki Simpson, associate dean of residence life. “The amount of peer to peer learning that goes on is very effective,” said Haney. “Students are so invested in this process.”

Calvin has also initiated a watershed restoration initiative called Plaster Creek Stewards that focuses on education, research, and on-the-ground restoration in collaboration with a number of community partners.  “Plaster Creek Stewards plays a significant role in effecting community and student engagement,” said Haney. Plaster Creek interns serve as research assistants on projects ranging from hydrology, native plant propagation, and ecological restoration, explained Gail Heffner, director of community engagement.

“Another key contributor to our score has been the Calvin Energy Recovery Fund (CERF) projects,” said Haney. “All of the projects work to reduce Calvin’s bottom line by cutting energy costs.” Matt Heun, professor of engineering said that through collaboration between the engineering department, Physical Plant and the Environmental and Energy Sustainability Committee, CERF has saved the college more than $100,000 in recent years.

“The biology department is promoting sustainability through a number of venues, notably the Calvin Community Gardens and the Plaster Creek Stewards,” said David Dornbos, biology professor. As dining services has begun buying more local produce and throwing away less food, they have formed a partnership with the Community Gardens, explained Haney. “The Calvin Community Gardens have three venues, two on Calvin's campus and the third in the Handlon Prison as part of the Calvin Prison Initiative,” said Dornbos. “The products from these gardens are purchased by Creative Dining in support of the chef's effort to support environmentally friendly, locally-accessed, fresh food.”

Next step, going for gold

“This year we scored 47 in the STARS rating system, but we need to score at least 65 in order to achieve gold,” said Haney. “The students have played a huge role in helping us reach silver, but to reach gold, it is going to take help from administration and investments in operations.”

In an effort to reach gold, Haney said the school plans to increase the number of courses taught that include units on sustainability as well as continue investing in ways to reduce or offset Calvin’s carbon emission. Haney hopes that in the future the school will introduce sustainability literacy assessment, a sustainability proficiency test that students will take freshman year and then retake before graduation to assess their learning. 

Haney said the school will continue to need campus-wide involvement in order to achieve gold. “The only way we can accomplish more change is if all hands are on deck,” she said. “We also have to have healthy dialogues about these topics; that’s why diversity is important, diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and experiences.”

Haney said, after two years piloting the STARS program, Calvin found it so helpful that they are committed to participating annually. “Being sustainable is part of our biblical mandate,” she said. “Calvin has a statement on sustainability which lays out sustainable practices in all areas of campus that are well aligned with the areas the STARS rating system looks at. We are called to be stewards of creation, so this was a good fit.”

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