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On an overcast day in July, a dozen SCU faculty and students boarded a colorful flotilla of inflatable rafts for a 105-mile trip down the Nenana River in Alaska. The watery journey marked the first phase of a long-term partnership with Hero Projects—an organization that combines outdoor adventure with meaningful volunteerism.
“The rafting experience helped us to become acclimated to the Alaskan wilderness,” explained Bill Mains, Leavey School of Business leadership lecturer and primary coordinator for the excursion. “It gave us a better understanding and appreciation of the resources that were all around us.”
From the river, the SCU group embarked on the second leg of the trip—meeting Alaskans, including business leaders, university faculty, government officials, and environmentalists—to introduce the idea of bringing renewable energy to the state’s rural communities.
“Many Alaskans today are dependent on fossil fuels; much of their energy comes from burning wood and diesel fuel,” said Mains. “They might spend $8 to $12 a gallon on diesel, so there’s quite a bit of interest in creating sustainable energy sources.”
The SCU group included faculty and students from the Leavey School of Business and from the School of Engineering. Also co-sponsoring the 15-day immersion trip was the Center for Science, Technology, and Society. Two film students from Hero Projects documented the trip.
Mains emphasized the importance of community building before asking people to make a change as significant as switching to a new form of energy. “Any small town is going to be a little suspicious of unknown people approaching them,” he noted, “but the local meetings we had helped to demonstrate our commitment.”
The outreach efforts eventually led to the town of Galena, population 600, and the site of a former Air Force base. In September, just two months after returning from Alaska, Mains traveled back to Galena to further discuss SCU’s role in bringing renewable energy to the town. Next summer, he’ll return with another group in hopes they can begin work on an actual installation. Within this group, engineering students could be involved in designing the project, he said, while business students could help the community understand the economics of it.
One engineering student, Theo Schapp, plans to be among those revisiting Alaska next year. He and another student, Elliott Martin, are working on a senior design project that could have implications for remote, off-grid areas. Their idea involves generating energy from hydrokinetics or the natural motion of water through waves, tidal streams or ocean and river currents.
Schapp acknowledges that bringing such a system anywhere in Alaska will involve many more trips and in-depth community involvement. “With any project, you can’t just go on one trip and expect to be implementing something the next year,” he said. “It takes time to build trust; we would work as a resource to help communities achieve their own goals.”
Shoba Krishnan, an associate professor of electrical engineering, is advising the two seniors and working with Mains on cultivating SCU’s alliance with Hero Projects. As the instructor of a course called Engineering Projects for the Community, she said the Alaska energy program is right up her alley. “I like projects that help local people continue their way of life without radically involving them in Westernized practices standards that could be unhealthy for them and their environment,” she explained.
Mains is equally well-suited to the Alaska project. As a co-leader of the business school’s CLASP (Contemplative Leadership and Sustainability) program, he arranges student activities and service trips related to sustainable development.
Among those students who went on the first immersion trip to Alaska, Mains said their feedback was heartening. “For many of them, it was an eye-opening experience. They have a better understanding of what it means to develop a sustainable product.”
Schapp noted similarities between the SCU travelers and the people they met. “Nobody is on the outside when we’re all pushing for the health of the environment,” he said. As for rafting down the Nenana River, “It showed me what Alaska is really like, how strong and vast a force nature truly is. It helped me realize that I am just one person in this world of many, and that in order for me to make a difference, I have to push harder than I thought.”