Biology department brews merits of local roastery’s coffee chaff

Biology of Sustainability students are helping the first ever carbon-negative coffee company, Tiny Footprint Coffee, become even more sustainable. Alan Krohnke, the owner and founder of Tiny Footprint Coffee, presented a seminar to St. Thomas students about chaff, the dried skin left over from coffee beans and a by product of the roasting process. (Emily Sweeney/TommieMedia).
Biology of Sustainability students are helping the first ever carbon-negative coffee company, Tiny Footprint Coffee, become even more sustainable. Alan Krohnke, the owner and founder of Tiny Footprint Coffee, presented a seminar to St. Thomas students about chaff, the dried skin left over from coffee beans and a by product of the roasting process. (Emily Sweeney/TommieMedia).

The St. Thomas biology department has partnered with Tiny Footprint Coffee, a local roastery in Minneapolis, to examine ways coffee chaff can be used for sustainability.

The owners of Tiny Footprint Coffee connected with Maria Dahmus, program manager of St. Thomas’ Sustainable Communities Partnership, to investigate alternative uses of chaff, a husk-like byproduct of coffee beans, which the company currently composts.

According to Tiny Footprint Coffee’s website, it takes 4 lbs of CO2 to produce and distribute 1 lb of their coffee. A portion of the proceeds from coffee that is sold goes to a reforestation effort in Ecuador’s Mindo cloud forest, where the trees planted by Tiny Footprint Coffee will remove 54 lbs of CO2 from the atmosphere. Overall, more CO2 is removed than emitted, making Tiny Footprint Coffee the world’s first carbon-negative coffee, according to their website.

This semester, students will be studying the properties of chaff and proposing experiments to learn how it could be used in a more sustainable way, possibly as a natural pesticide, mulch or even an energy source.

“These projects are things that are not necessarily urgent … but they are things that are very important (to the partners) that they don’t have the time or resources to investigate themselves,” Dahmus said.  

Dahmus usually develops partnerships with cities, nonprofits and government entities, but Tiny Footprint Coffee is her first experience connecting a business with a St. Thomas classroom.

“Our mission is to link city-identified sustainability projects with existing courses at St. Thomas so that students engage in real-world problem-solving,” Dahmus said, “while at the same time they’re advancing the business’ sustainability goals.”

Dahmus was interested in partnering with Tiny Footprint Coffee because they take a systems-level perspective to sustainability; the information the students find could be “transferable” to others in the roasting industry, according to Dahmus.

“They are very aware of and intentional about improving the sustainability of all parts of their coffee production supply chain,” Dahmus said. “Whatever their class finds out…  could be very helpful for other coffee roasters. This is a byproduct of every single coffee roaster.”

Biology professors Leah Domine and Gaston “Chip” Small adopted the Tiny Footprint Coffee project and implemented it in 12 classroom and lab sections of a sustainable biology course.

Domine said students in this course learn about the topic of sustainability through a biological lens and cover a variety of issues including human health, agricultural challenges and the spread of disease. This year students will apply what they learn in class to the partnerships.

Senior Zachary Beckman is looking forward to working on the coffee project in the biology of sustainability course.

“We can use a lot of different biological calculations in order to figure out how we can actually quantify the amount of carbon being placed in the atmosphere,” Beckman said.

Small described the project as more than just a classroom assignment for a grade. He thinks it will provide a unique experience for students to work on a real-world problem without a defined answer in mind.

“It’s good experience essentially working as a contractor, almost. You’re hired to solve this certain problem or write a report on this specific information,” Small said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at


Sustainable Communities Partnership takes learning outside the classroom

English Professor Lucia Pawlowski talks with students about their nonprofit presentations before class. This is Pawlowski's first semester working with the sustainability initiatives office. (Meghan Meints/TommieMedia)
English Professor Lucia Pawlowski talks with students about their nonprofit presentations before class. This is Pawlowski’s first semester working with the sustainability initiatives office. (Meghan Meints/TommieMedia)

For the past year, Maria Dahmus has been gathering projects and partners for the university’s Sustainable Communities Partnership pilot program, which links what students are learning in the classroom to questions that local organizations are trying to answer.

“These local government units, and especially cities, are facing emerging sustainability issues that they may not have ever faced before,” Dahmus, program manager for St. Thomas’ sustainability initiatives department, said. “They don’t necessarily have the time or the capacity to address all of the things that are happening. Cities face these challenges with limited resources.”

That’s where SCP comes in. Through this program, Dahmus connects government entities with professors and students who are able to help solve the organization’s sustainability questions while gaining real-world experience.

Project partners go through an extensive scoping process where Dahmus looks at what the organization is asking for and assesses whether it is achievable and if it fits into an existing St. Thomas course.

Some of the projects SCP’s partners want to complete will take multiple semesters before coming to fruition, or the projects need to be broken down into smaller pieces and tackled by multiple courses. As long as the goal is achievable, Dahmus can help.

“It’s like a puzzle, and we try to fit the pieces together in the places where it most enriches the course, but we can be really flexible about how that happens,” she said. “We can cut the pieces into smaller pieces if we want, as long as they can fit back together.”

Lucia Pawlowski, assistant professor for the English department, teaches analytical and persuasive writing, which works with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s Master Water Stewards, volunteers who work with the organization to educate their neighborhood about water use.

In her course, Pawlowski typically works with five different nonprofits — which she finds and researches herself — so that students can “learn rhetoric by working within a real-life rhetorical context.” By partnering with SCP, she had one less organization to find.

“I really wanted some science majors in my class,” Pawlowski said. “I knew I needed to go sustainability.”

“When we think about environmental impacts, and we think about environmental degradation, we get overwhelmed. Master Water Stewards is a way to tap into a real-life, local solution to environmental degradation,” Pawlowski said. “It’s a way of bringing home the global problem on a local level and problem solving it, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by it.”

Genevieve Gates, a junior in Pawlowski’s class, is one of the students working with MWS. At the beginning of the semester, students were able to choose which community partners they wanted to work with for their projects, and Gates chose the Freshwater Society’s Master Water Stewards.

“I wanted to learn more about water quality and why water use is so important, especially in a city like the Twin Cities,” Gates said.

Gates is an Apartment Coordinator in Morrison and tries to encourage her residents to do little things like turn the water off while they’re brushing their teeth.

“We have to understand the implications of the kinds of things we’re doing,” Gates said.

At this time, students can only participate if they’re in a course that is working with SCP; the few clubs that are currently partnering with SCP found this opportunity through their course work.

“There’s the student entrepreneurship club, and the leader of that club is a student in the economics courses. After I came to his class, he contacted me about whether the partners would have any projects they could work on with their club,” Dahmus said. “I connected him to … our main project contact at Elk River, so they may work on some things with businesses there. That’s an example of how it’s not directly through us, but it’s through our partnership.”

Gates echoed that sentiment.

“The power of the student body is really prominent. I feel like working with organizations and the sustainability department would make it way more powerful. I don’t think that we as a student body care enough and have as much of a voice about this as we should,” Gates said.

Meghan Meints can be emailed at

St. Thomas community encouraged to join sustainability efforts

Infographic by designer Kelly Olson
Infographic by designer Kelly Olson

The University of St. Thomas Campus Sustainability Fund Committee is inviting members of the university community to submit proposals to help the school reach its goal of becoming climate neutral by the year 2035.

Since 2008, when former St. Thomas President the Rev. Dennis Dease pledged to achieve carbon neutrality at St. Thomas, the goal has been a 4 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions every year. Director of Resident Life and member of the Campus Sustainability Fund Committee Aaron Macke said CSF proposals and projects are about more than just reducing carbon emissions.

“Obviously we want to reduce our carbon footprint, so any project that helps in reducing the carbon footprint is something that we want to see,” Macke said. “But the education piece is really big and has a great impact on our students’ research opportunities, involvement and educational opportunities. That can receive a lot of weight too.”

Any member of the St. Thomas community can submit a proposal, but Macke said student involvement is especially important to the committee and that the university wants to see grassroots change.

“We want to see projects that are going to improve our carbon footprint, but we also want to get people involved, and we want to especially get students involved,” he said. “Any project that involves staff or faculty and students together to either help educate students or help educate the university community is good.”

For the past four years, St. Thomas has achieved its goal of reducing annual pollution by 4 percent. As long as the goal is met, St. Thomas Facilities Management will donate $50,000 annually to the CSF.

Proposals that are approved by the Sustainability Committee – the overseeing branch of the CSF – are then allocated money from the fund. Previously funded CSF proposals include the solar panels on the roof of the Anderson Student Center and the hydration stations in residence halls and other campus buildings. Macke believes no proposal is a bad one.

“What’s nice about this fund is that it is really wide open and so depending on what someone sees as a project, we get to read new things every year and get to evaluate them and make some decisions,” he said. “That’s exciting and I think that’s the whole point of it too, to be creative every year about what these funds could be spent on.”

Only one proposal has been submitted so far, suggesting low-flow shower heads. Sophomore Cari Monroe, a student member of the CSF Committee, was involved in writing the proposal to get the solar panels on the roof of ASC. Monroe said students could benefit from submitting a proposal.

“It’s really good on a resume, and getting a grant is a huge thing that employers look at,” Monroe said. “It’s also something to be very proud of.”

Junior Kennedy Kruchoski, a student member of the Sustainability Committee, said personal connection to campus is a major reason student involvement is encouraged.

“Faculty only have so much experience with being on campus and having this as a home and community,” Kruchoski said. “There’s a responsibility that we feel as students towards our community, towards resident life and just campus life in general, that faculty kind of lacks in some ways. There’s something a bit more personal coming from a student’s perspective.”

With the university’s climate neutrality goal still 20 years away, sustainability initiatives at St. Thomas are still in their early stages. Still, Macke believes the school has already seen benefits, including an increase in sustainability awareness around campus.

“The energy and the education around sustainability has grown immensely,’’ he said. “That is probably in and of itself the biggest thing that this initiative does.”

CSF proposals can be submitted online.

William Faust can be reached at

St. Thomas ranked No. 19 in EPA’s top 30 college and university list

Infographic by designer Kelly Olson
Infographic by designer Kelly Olson

St. Thomas was ranked No. 19 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnerships top 30 list among colleges and universities nationwide, released Jan. 26.

The list is based on the total amount of energy used each year from sustainable sources. St. Thomas currently uses 34,134,560 kilowatts per hour, while the No. 1-ranked University of Pennsylvania uses 200,183,000 kilowatts per hour.

Bob Douglas, coordinator of Recycling and Central Receiving, said he believes the school sets an example for other colleges and universities.

“I’m happy that (St. Thomas) is getting recognized nationally for its commitment to reduce the use of carbon-based energy,” Douglas said. “Our position in the EPA Green Power listings shows that we are leading the way among state colleges and universities in our use of alternative energy.”

Douglas also said the ranking will give the university more recognition as a whole and increase students’ awareness of St. Thomas’ environmental priorities.

The decision to use Xcel Windsource energy on campus plays a bigger role in the St. Thomas community than most students and faculty are aware of, according to Douglas.

“We know that the continued dependence on carbon-based fuel not only heats up the environment, but the resulting warming cascades into an increase of disease, invasive species, catastrophic weather episodes … while reducing the clean air necessary to enjoy a healthy and vital lifestyle,” Douglas said. “Our present energy choices help determine the kind of future students of St. Thomas will live in.”

According to, Minnesota is one most environmentally friendly states in the country, with both Minneapolis and St. Paul earning a top 10 spot in the nation’s greenest cities. St. Paul is ranked eighth, and Minneapolis is ranked 10th.

Sophomore Melanie Bussan said she is proud of the contributions St. Thomas has made.

“I think it says a lot about us as a community that we really strive to lessen the impact that we have on the environment and to be more conscious of the world around us,” Bussan said.

St. Thomas recently added new solar energy panels to the Anderson Student Center that could eventually boost its overall ranking. The panels went online one month ago, and their contribution will be seen on the EPA colleges and universities list in January of 2016.

“The decision to invest in alternative fuels illustrates our desire to make the future environment a better place for all of our students and communities,” Douglas said. “Our environment is the platform on which the future will rest.”

Travis Swan can be reached at

Minn. ranked 10th for energy efficiency

Infographic by Designer Elle Jackson
Infographic by Designer Elle Jackson

Rankings by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in late October named Minnesota the 10th best state in the nation for energy efficiency, and St. Thomas is doing its part to contribute to the reputation.

Bob Douglas, central receiving chair of the Sustainability Committee, said leadership and education in Minnesota are two reasons why the state has become a leader for energy efficiency in the Midwest.

“We have people in office who see the need for energy efficiency, that that’s a sustainable thing,” Douglas said. “I think we also have a very educated population, and they’re aware of the whole idea (that) basing all of our economy on carbon fuels is a limited future, and it’s a rise in expense.”

Sophomore Alexis Millo said she thinks this ranking will inspire people to save more energy.

“If Minnesota is really good at what it does, it will raise more awareness to other people about how to (be more eco-friendly),” Millo said. “I’m not from Minnesota, so it’s kind of cool that I get to be in a state where I can be more open to those things.”

Douglas said St. Thomas has been making the campus more energy efficient for years by switching out single-speed heating and air conditioning motors for variable speed motors in all campus buildings, which allows for heating or cooling systems that take up less energy.

He added that replacing fluorescent lights with LED ones, using electric vehicles instead of gas and changing out regular printers to ones that print on both sides of the paper are all moves St. Thomas has made over the years to save energy.

According to Douglas, another ongoing plan involves analyzing campus buildings and doing maintenance every three years to make them more energy efficient.

“They go and look at the way things work: how the lights work, the way the heating works, the air conditioning works, the venting works, how much energy is escaping through the windows, for example,” Douglas said. “They basically tune up the buildings so they’re running more efficiently, and that saves energy.”

Douglas said advanced lighting systems are another thing that make St. Thomas an eco-friendly institution. Lights in the Anderson Student Center have motion and infrared sensors that turn them off when the room is empty, and lights in Opus Hall on the Minneapolis campus sense and adjust to natural lighting.

“The ones closest to the windows will dim as the sun comes up, so when there’s full light the lights shut off,” he said.

According to Douglas, students can help save energy by recycling.

“For all of us, it saves energy when we recycle. Recycling is a commodity of the future,” Douglas said.

Sophomore Karina Cuate-Ramirez said she was surprised Minnesota is doing so well when it comes to saving energy, especially because she doesn’t see as much recycling in the Twin Cities as she would like.

“I know you can walk down the street, and you see trash cans everywhere, especially in the cities, but you don’t really see recycling things everywhere,” Cuate-Ramirez said.

Douglas also recommended students turn computers off at night or put them on sleep mode, print on both sides of paper and refrain from opening windows when the heat is on. He said using excessive energy steals from the future.

“If we make good energy saving choices now, it is a brighter – literally a brighter – future for everyone,” he said. “I know technology is moving towards having all kinds of apps and things like that, but it’s just healthy sometimes just to enjoy life without all these energy sources … So every once in a while, turn it off.”

Jamie Bernard can be reached at

St. Thomas raises awareness of carbon-neutral campus

From a week-long scavenger hunt to a farmers market on Friday, St. Thomas used sUSTainability week to raise awareness about the collective effort to achieve a carbon-neutral campus by 2035 with the help of new solar panels installed in September.

“We’re doing it to raise awareness about sustainability and promote UST’s initiatives for sustainability. We have a couple different projects going on around campus,” Margaret Chelsvig, Undergraduate Student Government sustainability representative, said.

Since 2007, when the geography department went carbon neutral, the university’s Sustainability Working Group has completed greenhouse gas emission audits. These audits give valuable information concerning St. Thomas’ approximate energy consumption and greenhouse gas levels and determine how well the university is executing its plan each year.

St. Thomas is part of a coalition of 25 other Minnesota colleges striving for carbon neutrality but is unique, according to junior Sam Harvey, sustainability research assistant.

“Basically our whole project is about urban agriculture and efficiency, something everybody can take part in,” Harvey said. “I would say we’re different because we actually engage students in the sustainability efforts.”

Jacob Remes can be reached at

Solar panels installed on Anderson Student Center

Solar panel installation began Monday, Sept. 22 on the roof of the Anderson Student Center after years of work from St. Thomas’ Sustainability Committee.

According to the ASC Solar Panel Project Summary, the 3,692-square-foot unit installation by Cedar Creek Energy will take three weeks. The panels were created by tenKsolar, a Minnesota solar panel development and manufacturing company. The project’s proposal said the panels will cost $144,320.

Bob Douglas, central receiving chair of the Sustainability Committee, said this is St. Thomas’ third attempt at having the panels installed on the student center.

“We made two other attempts to get the panels put on, but what happened was we were working with a different company and we just couldn’t get the finances together,” Douglas said.

The Campus Sustainability Fund is financing $50,571 of the project, according to its website. The Made in Minnesota Solar Energy Program lottery provides a rebate around $11,200 per year based on how much energy is generated to finance the rest of the project.

Solar panels are installed on the Anderson Student Center on the morning of Monday, Sept. 22. The project was budgeted at $144,320. (Lauren Smith/TommieMedia)
Workers began installing solar panels on the Anderson Student Center on the morning of Monday, Sept. 22. The project was budgeted at $144,320. (Lauren Smith/TommieMedia)

Physical Plant administrator Jim Brummer created the ASC Solar Panel Project Summary and said the university is relying on the yearly rebate, and Douglas said the project should be paid off in the next three to four years.

The proposal for the current project, which was submitted in the spring, listed three university roofs in the Made in Minnesota Solar Energy Program lottery – the student center, the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex and the McCarthy Gymnasium – but only the student center project was financed. Different organizations can apply for the lottery and a few get selected for financing.

“This (project) is the largest thing that has been funded by the Campus Sustainability Fund,” Douglas said.

Solar panels are a long-term investment, according to Douglas. The proposal said the panels are guaranteed to produce energy for 25 years but are expected to last longer. During this time period, the panels are estimated to cut the St. Paul campus’ energy costs by $5,100 per year. With costs of other forms of energy likely to increase over the panels’ lifetime, the value and the amount of money they save the university will also increase.

“These panels are supposed to be the cutting edge right now, and they keep improving,” Douglas said.

According to the project summary, early estimates predict that this system will offset 46 tons of carbon emissions per year and 1,120 tons in the 25-year life expectancy. However, the panels’ exact energy production cannot be immediately determined.

“It’s not enough to power the whole building. This is a very energy-intense building, but it will significantly reduce the load,” Douglas said. “It will be interesting to see how much it is able to do that.”

Freshman Owen Nowick said he was excited about the addition of solar panels.

“I think the more use of solar power, the better,” Nowick said. “It would be great to see (campus) more green and more prepared for the future.”

The proposal said several classes, including some from the environmental studies, engineering and biology departments, were interested in making the solar panels part of their curriculum.

With the proposal’s approval, Douglas said students would get a chance to go up on the roof to see how the panels are arranged and interpret data about energy generation and consumption.

“To be able to teach classes that deal with sustainability issues: How do we keep going? How do we keep our culture going? How do we keep making decisions that won’t destroy it for the next generation?” Douglas said. “That should be a topic in the classroom.”

Senior Kelsey Long said she thought that incorporating sustainability topics into the classroom is beneficial.

“I feel like there are still some people who don’t realize how big of an issue it is and aren’t really seeking out information,” Long said. “So bringing it into the classroom and making it something that you have to talk about makes it more real and brings more information to more people.”

The student center panels face Cretin Avenue but aren’t visible from the street because the campus is located in a heritage district of St. Paul, which requires preservation of historical elements, such as building design, Douglas said.

The Environmental Protection Agency ranked St. Thomas No. 21 in top colleges and universities for using green power this summer.

Junior Winnie Cooley said she likes the St. Thomas’ environmental efforts so far and anticipates more for the future.

“I think we’re making a lot of progress each year. You can see the changes,” Cooley said.

Lauren Smith can be reached at

Study shows leaf waste affects water quality

A University of Minnesota study showed decaying leaves from streets and storm drains have caused phosphorus to pile up in local bodies of water, affecting more than 140 lakes in the Twin Cities.

St. Thomas biology professor Chip Small said too much phosphorus from leaves can have a minor effect on the Mississippi River as well, causing water to appear green and smell bad.

“Nutrients get leeched out of those leaves and go straight into the gutters, and it turns out that’s actually a pretty significant fraction of the phosphorus,” Small said. “The water just flushes whatever is in the streets into the storm sewers … and those go out directly into the river.”

Sophomore Andy Hobday said after learning about the issue, he will be more conscious about raking.

“I want to do what I can to help out, so I’m raking,” Hobday said.

Roger Weinbrenner, lead staff member for the St. Thomas grounds department, said the staff mows frequently to help cut back on phosphorus levels.

“We use mulching kits on the bottom of our mowers,” Weinbrenner said. “It breaks (leaves) up in very small pieces.”

Though it is important to cut back on phosphorus, Small said overly-nutritious leaves are not the biggest problem the river is facing.

“Runoff from farmland is probably the main thing we need to focus on,” Small said. “But for this study for the impact of leaves, I think that’s more of a local impact in local streams and lakes.”

Hobday said the Mississippi River is one of the main reasons he loves St. Thomas and hopes his help can improve river conditions.

“(The river) is my favorite place here; this is why I go to St. Thomas,” Hobday said. “I’m doing what I can to help out.”

Alison Bengtson can be reached at

Stewardship Garden yields produce, research

St. Thomas’ Stewardship Garden started The Helpful Flowers Project this year to test the effect of plant biodiversity on nutrient uptake from the soil.

Junior Hunter Gaitan, who is involved with the project, said he hopes to apply this data to predict each plant combination’s potential ability to remove harmful substances from soil.

“There is a lot of strength in scientific literature that potentially biodiversity could be a useful tool for removing more contaminants from soil,” Chambers said.

The Stewardship Garden, which is located behind the Brady Educational Center is in its third year at the university. Biology students are tasked with maintaining the garden, with help from adviser and biology professor Adam Kay. The garden gets its funding from the Young Scholars Program.

Senior Elizabeth Chambers spent the summer continuing a two-year research project on the effect of fertilizer.

“We are trying to find the sweet spot between fertilizer and environmental impact,” Chambers said. “This means that is doesn’t matter much how fertilizer you put on; after a certain point it stops to be successful in a linear pattern.”

Students planted two species of tomatoes, peas, green beans, zucchini, broccoli, eggplant, garlic, and cilantro. On Sept. 28 and 29, the students harvested the produce in the garden.

“We wanted to do it before the frost damaged all the food,” Chambers said.

The produce is not only used for research, but also to benefit the community. The program donated its produce to Neighbors Inc., a food shelf in St. Paul. Since 2011, the gardeners have donated 4,000 pounds of produce.

After harvesting the produce, the gardeners also donated the remaining produce to St. Thomas Dining Services.

“Hopefully for sustainability week we will have some St. Thomas pesto from our basil plants,” Chambers said.

Chambers said she enjoys being able to discuss broader environmental issues with St. Thomas community members who aren’t familiar with the topic.

“I really liked being able to talk to the neighbors about our project because we do get a lot of positive community interaction with the neighbors,” Chambers said. “They see a garden, and they don’t really think about things like fertilizer impacts.”

Christina Theodoroff can be reached at