Wartburg College science education professor Mike Bechtel received the Engaged Campus Award for Emerging Innovation from the Seed Coalition, formerly Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact, for his work with sustainable agriculture.

Bechtel was honored during the organization’s 2024 President’s and Engaged Campus Awards ceremony on April 19 at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Also honored were Bethany Christians, who received the Presidents’ Student Leadership Award; Krystal Madlock, who received the Presidents’ Civic Engagement Leadership Award; and the Larrabee Center, which received the Presidents’ Community Partner Award.

The Engaged Campus Award for Emerging Innovation recognizes an initiative making innovative contributions that demonstrate strong future potential. Only one award is bestowed annually among the more than 50 colleges and universities that make up the coalition. Bechtel was recognized for his work with Ioponics, which combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) to create a controlled micro-ecosystem for year-round hands-on learning.

To date, more than 180 40-gallon systems have been placed in classrooms in 70 of Iowa’s 99 counties and in 14 states, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Hawaii.

“I love that when asked by educators from different states if we can do something different with it, we can answer, ‘Let’s try,’ whether that’s growing pineapple in a setup in Hawaii or adding native fish to the tank,” said Bechtel.

Bechtel and his student researchers recently presented on the Ioponics system, which comes with standards-based and age-appropriate lesson plans, at the National Science Teaching Association conference in Denver, Colorado.

“It’s crazy that there are so many connections being made and lives being changed by this work. I try to make it my goal to put units in low socioeconomic status schools, to give them opportunities to grow their own produce in the classroom,” he said. “I hope to start being able to bring more of these to urban areas where they can’t grow things outside as easily.”

Christians, a junior from Dunkerton, is the student representative on the Waverly-Shell Rock Area United Way Board of Directors, has helped train service dogs for Retrieving Freedom, and developed a community impact project as part of the college’s Baldwin Leadership Fellows program. She also is part the executive team for Knights Who Serve, a student-run organization that connects students with community organizations for service opportunities.

“Passion is what drives community building,” she said. “While I am incredibly grateful to be selected for this award, there’s much more work to be done. If anything, this award reminds me of how many more opportunities there are to continue to address the needs in our communities.”

Madlock, the college’s first associate dean for inclusive community, oversees the strategy and implementation of the college’s DEI work in collaboration with others on campus. Since being named to this position in 2022, she has organized the college’s first Unity Ceremony to present stoles honoring students’ identities, amplified the college’s presence at local inclusion festivals, and organized and executed the college’s first Inclusion Day, which included an education resource fair and guest speakers, both with community partners.

She also is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a historically African American sorority dedicated to public service and programs that assist the African American community; the Board of Education for the Waterloo Community Schools; and the Waterloo Community Foundation.

“I strongly believe that in anything I do, whether in my professional or personal life, it is all about building a community. At a predominantly white institution, it is really important to build a home for minority group students that can branch out to a larger community,” said Madlock. “Just about anyone you ask will tell you that I don’t do this work for the recognition, but it feels good that people see the work that I am doing. I prefer to be behind the scenes and do the work so that Wartburg and its students have the best.”

The Larrabee Center, which received the Presidents’ Community Partner Award, assists people with disabilities and the elderly on their journey to becoming or remaining independent members of the community. The college partners with the nonprofit in mutually beneficial ways, including a collaboration that provides employment opportunities for Larrabee clients in Wartburg’s dining hall.

“Our employment program initially sought out community businesses for short-term internships to give our clients the opportunity to explore work in the community. Since that initial partnership, we have contracted annually within [Wartburg’s] dining services, giving numerous clients the opportunity to explore employment in the community,” said Jessica Gulick, associate director of the Larrabee Center. “Many individuals then had the opportunity to be hired on as regular part-time employees from those experiences.”

Wartburg students also volunteer at the center’s thrift store on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as part of the college’s day of service and as part of service-learning projects. The Larrabee Center also works closely with Wartburg College’s Department of Social Work.

“Oftentimes, as a small nonprofit in our community, we tend to just quietly do our work behind the scenes. Receiving recognition is truly humbling and appreciated, as our staff work hard and are so dedicated to our mission. We have seen our community truly embrace our mission and support the inclusion of our clients and individuals of all abilities in our workforce and all aspects of community living,” Gulick said. “We are truly fortunate to have a great community partner in Wartburg College.”