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Student Journal: Engineers See Sustainability Firsthand in Costa Rica

May 16, 2016
The Sustainability and Systems Thinking class poses for a portrait in Costa Rica.
The Sustainability and Systems Thinking class poses for a portrait in Costa Rica.

Note: Seth Bassham, Erica Gilrein and Alex Tyrrell are students in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. They documented their experiences on the “Sustainability and Systems Thinking” class trip to Costa Rica. 

A group of University of Wyoming students got to see the wonders of Costa Rica firsthand recently through a UW class called “Sustainability and Systems Thinking,” offered jointly by UW’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, along with the Haub School for Environment and Natural Resources. The course was taught by Patrick Johnson of UW’s Department of Chemical Engineering and it featured 10 UW students going to Costa Rica to learn about sustainability and its ecosystems.

Costa Rica’s biodiversity is world renowned, and is one reason why conservation and sustainability are so important to the infrastructural and social systems found there. The beautiful rain forest and cloud forest are examples of a region with exquisite and vast biodiversity. Places such as these are what make Costa Rica such a central hub for tourism. Tourists come from all around the globe to experience Costa Rica’s forests, beaches, culture and wildlife, while also supporting the Costa Rican economy.

The trip brought together students from engineering, environment and natural resources, and even political science. Dr. Johnson taught us how to view sustainability as a system with different parts integral to make it possible. The class met a number of times to learn about the history and practices of a systems view of thinking and how it is applied to everything from physics to sustainability to philosophy. We were able to experience these concepts in action. This was evident in facilities such as the University of Georgia (UGA) Costa Rica’s biodigester, which we toured. The biodigester takes human waste from campus and sends it to a container where bacteria convert it to clean water and methane that can be used by campus kitchens.

To begin, the class met in a Costa Rican airport after a long night of travel. After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we got on the bus for the long ride to the UGA campus in the mountains near Monteverde. An early start the next day found us on one of UGA’s many hiking trails, learning about leaf-cutter ants leaving trails on the forest floor, strangler fig trees and other diverse flora and fauna found in the area. Later, we learned about more plants and their uses to local indigenous cultures, like the papaya tree and the unpleasant-smelling Dutchman’s Pipe flower, on a tour of UGA’s medicinal plant garden. On a night hike later that evening, we were lucky enough to see the local tarantula, Edith, in her burrow.

The following days continued much the same, with a whirlwind of tours at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a butterfly garden and insect learning center, a sustainable coffee plantation and UGA facilities. We saw many plants and animals, including a resplendent quetzal. Sighting this bird brings people to Monteverde from all over the world! At UGA, we were able to tour the farms that provide some of the facility’s food, including a variety of native fruits and vegetables and some livestock. We all tried milking the cows (something that the interns at UGA must do every morning) and found it to be harder than it looks!

The next few days focused on the culture of Costa Rica and the social sustainability efforts by UGA. Through some local families kind enough to teach us, we learned some local cooking styles of the area. A walking tour of Monteverde brought us some background on the area’s history and culture. In a trip highlight for some, we toured Monteverde’s locally supplied chocolate factory, saw the production of chocolate from beans to bars, complete with samples throughout! We spent part of one day completing a community service project by rehabilitating a soccer field in San Luis, and managed to squeeze in a tour of EcoBambu, the local paper-recycling facility. Our final day at UGA, we rewarded our hard work touring with a fun, relaxing day with a hanging bridges hike and ziplining—all except our professor, who did not find the zipline relaxing.

A long bus ride took us to Rancho Margot, an ecotourist resort near Arenal Volcano. Our time there brought us more tours and night hikes. Rancho Margot has an extensive farm system with a few chocolate trees, water supply system and is powered by its very own hydroelectric generator. We saw howler monkeys on our kayaking trip on Lake Arenal, a tarantula hawk wasp on a one of the trails, and a few of us even saw a jaguarundi crossing a nearby road!

After two days at Rancho Margot, we headed to the beach for the last leg of our trip. Tired from endless tours and early mornings, we took our beach time to relax and enjoy the sun. We paddle boarded, snorkeled, body surfed, collected shells and enjoyed the sun. Though sunburned, we were not ready to leave for Laramie the next day, but we made the most of our time in Costa Rica.

Most of the students had never been to Costa Rica before. It quickly became apparent how critical the conservation effort was to all other aspects of Costa Rican life. Sustainable practices are critical to avoid infringing upon forested land, protect wildlife, reduce waste, recycle and repurpose items. Monteverde is one of the most sustainable places on the planet.

Costa Rican coffee is rich and full in flavor, as it is one of the top exports of the country. The coffee market around in the mountainous Monteverde region is very close knit. Typically, the coffee farmer lives next to the coffee roaster, who lives next to the person who packages the coffee. The agricultural methods used on this particular farm is about as natural as it gets, and unfortunately that has led to some complications for the coffee industry in Costa Rica.

Currently, fungus has permeated through coffee plantations throughout Costa Rica. This fungus severely reduces the output of the crops. This particular fungus is referred to as the “rust fungus” as it is characterized by a grainy rust colored growth upon the leaves of the coffee plant. This fungus has been allowed to take its course as it is difficult to treat a widespread epidemic of this fungus, especially without causing more damage than the fungus itself would. This action, or inaction, is a grand example of how important sustainable practice is with regards to the environment in Costa Rica. Most Costa Ricans avoid interfering in the path of nature as they recognize there is a delicate balance between all entities found within the Costa Rican environment. This was a subject that was deeply studied, not only in reference to the practice of such sustainability, but also historically. Much of what was studied was an evolution in thought that led to the notion that the environment was important and necessary to the structure of society.

The class learned a lot during the trip and will be able to apply this knowledge to everyday life. This opportunity was a great experience for all of us from both a learning perspective as well as a study abroad perspective. We would like to thank Dick and Lynne Cheney for providing the entire class with a generous scholarship to aid in funding our experience.

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