Students present community sustainability projects in "Roots of the Environmental Crisis" course

This semester I had the opportunity a few times to sit in on a class taught by professor of Biology, Ryan Sensenig, called Roots of the Environmental Crisis. This new course offered at Goshen College emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to thinking about our lives by examining the local connections we have to natural resources and working for restorative and hope-filled solutions. I attended three presentations on community sustainability projects by the students, which was their final assignment. These three projects linked students, faculty, and the GC community. They were: how to make heating and cooling local homes more efficient; how to convert a 1983 Vanagon into a sustainable mode of transportation; and how the community of Goshen can collaborate to jointly support the renovation, use, and ongoing management of the Goshen Downtown Theater. Through listening to the students speak it made me wish I could have taken this class. I was fascinated with the process of connecting with people in working towards sustainable solutions, and impressed with their presentations.

The Home Heating project.

An Infraed (IR) photo showing a home's heat loss.

Since more than 30% of energy used to heat homes is lost, and the average household heating bill pays for $170 in wasted energy annually, this group’s goals were to save local homeowners money while simultaneously reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. They started by creating a survey that outlines the physical and behavioral elements on home energy use. They incorporated a social pedagogy involving interactions with home owners via the survey and email correspondence. They received positive feedback from the participants in the community. In fact 16 of the 33 households who took the survey submitted their 3-year utility data. This showed both winter heating and summer electric bills. After they collected and sorted the data, they made a statistical model that predicts under what conditions would be socially and financially sustainable. Then using the averages of summer electric and winter natural gas use, the group highlighted the most important characteristics. These included how many inches of insulation the house had, the type of cooling and heating system, if the basement was finished or not, frequency and type of filter cleaning, square footage of the house, and total number of windows in the house. Their analysis showed what circumstances caused the most expensive bills and greatest inefficiencies.

Other members of this group were in charge of the Infrared (IR) imaging cameras to see differences in newer and older homes. The photos were taken outside at night, primarily of windows and doors. The pictures were then sent to homeowners to show them where heat loss is happening in their homes. Interpreting what the photos meant for the homeowners will hopefully foster change that will promote environmental sustainability.

Many homeowners lack awareness which is why there is inefficient use of energy in their homes. With that in mind, the remaining group members created a brochure to give homeowners who participated in the home audit to help them understand what they could do about it. This pamphlet displays a hypothetical model they created that displays savings and returns over time for specific improvements. Their suggestions showed the economic savings for different programmable thermostats and furnace filters. By providing this information, local homeowners can grasp how their energy bills will be affected in the long-run.

The Electric Vanagon Project

The 1983 VW Vanagon

The purpose of this project was to look into the opportunity of developing a carbon neutral mode of transportation in converting a 1983 VW Vanagon that could benefit the Goshen community. One of the main options was converting it to run on vegetable oil. Using veggie oil would be easy because of the endless supply from local restaurants. It is also an organic and sustainable fuel source that burns cleaner than diesel. Since the vegetable oil takes a while to heat up the students quickly realized it only makes sense to convert it if it were used primarily for long trips.  They developed a carbon assessment of the costs of various fuel sources for powering the VW Vanagon in Indiana including electric. Through calculating the carbon and dollar costs of conversion, fuel consumption, and ongoing maintenance/use, the team realized how expensive some of the options were. By conducting a cost-benefit analysis, they found that the veggie oil option would only be a 2-month payback.

Part of this group proposed two scenarios that included funding for the conversion, policies they would need to consider, and who would own and operate the van. Their first option was that GC would use it as a sustainable transportation vehicle for students going to and from Merry Lea. Funding would come from the Ecological Stewardship Committee.  The second option was that a local non-profit organization, The Window, would use it in their operations for volunteers delivering 50-60 meals per day that they provide in the Goshen community. This option would be handed over to Enactus, a group of GC student leaders committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world. Enactus would be in charge of funding it with a business grant. Both scenarios revolved around building social connections with a sustainable momentum in a transient community.

The Goshen Downtown Theater Project

The Goshen Theater in downtown Goshen

This project stems from the question of how can the community of Goshen collaborate and support the renovation, use, and ongoing management of the Goshen Downtown Theater? This well-known building in downtown Goshen has gone through many shifts in ownership over the years. With a rich history, this theater has been standing for over 100 years. Community involvement has served great importance as it has been used for church services, dance classes, film series, First Friday events, and is currently a non-profit. The community has a lot of pride in the theater. A feasibility study conducted a few years ago stated that it is a “hub” of diverse activities. By linking all parties in the Goshen community involved in envisioning how to use the theater, this group analyzed who uses the theater, for what purposes, and what do they value about it. They conducted a local business owner survey and got insights into the impact the theater has on their shops. They found that since many are closed by the time events go on, any increase in store traffic mostly goes unnoticed.

Other members working on this project looked into reducing heat energy and heat loss for some sustainable solutions. They generated potential ways the theater could be used and recommendations for solutions to decrease energy costs especially with lighting the theater.

They conducted an energy audit and calculated feasibility for renovation options. Their proposed future suggestions were realistic options for the very specific layout of the theater.  Overall the group recognized the challenges over the long-term, historically and over the next hundred years.


After all three groups presented the class discussed their reflections on their projects. I could tell they felt a renewed sense of disciplines connecting – integrating social environmental, economic, and even political and religious aspects. This final project was harder than they expected as they got to witness first-hand the complexities in these processes. Through investigation and incorporation of different perspectives, they learned what seemed obvious at first may not actually be feasible. Ultimately it was the locally grown solutions that resulted from collaborating with and catering to the community and their needs that can bring awareness and create sustainable models and relationships.

–By Kristina Lopienski