Costa Rica – Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

MSU / UCR – December 15-29, 2012


As the world’s population continues to rapidly increase, balancing sufficient food production, clean energy generation, and minimizing water, land, and air pollution is increasingly difficult.  The growing field of ecological engineering focuses on incorporating ecological concepts into engineering design and analysis.  Ecological engineering is key to advancing sustainable development and solving many of the grand challenges that face our world. This study abroad course explores the design and performance of energy and food production systems in the context of ecological sustainability.  We’ll explore the ecological aspects of carbon, water, and energy using bananas, rice, and coffee.  Additionally, we’ll participate in the design and construction of an integrated solar biodigester and wetland system in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

In 2011, researchers in the Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering department at Michigan State University recieved a grant from the US Department of State focused on improving access clean energy in Latin America, collaborating with universities in Costa Rica (UCR), Panama (UNACHI),  and Nicaragua (Leon). The goal of this project is to:

Our study abroad course is a component of this grant.  In addition to 9 MSU students and 1 Oregon State University student, we’ll be joined by University of Costa Rica faculty and students throughout most of the trip.  Additionally, we are currently constructing the solar biodigester and wetland system at Fabio Experimental Station, an agricultural research site owned by UCR.  Through outreach throughout Latin America coordinated by UCR, this site will become a key demonstration site for training Latin American engineers in clean energy production.

Costa Rica is an ideal location for U.S. students to learn about ecological engineering in a new culture and landscape for the following reasons:
• Costa Rica pursues very ambitious environmental goals,  including the goal of being the first carbon neutral country in the world.  While a noble goal from a climate change perspective, every human activity has an ecological impact.  Energy facilities in Costa Rica are therefore ideal examples for how to balance clean energy production and ecological impacts. For example, due to erosion in mountainous agricultural regions in Costa Rica reservoirs for, hydroelectric dams quickly fill with sediments. Releasing the sediments solves this problem, but kills the majority of fish living downstream.
• Costa Rica also relies heavily on ecological tourism and emphasizes protection of its ecological resources. However, in terms of sanitary infrastructure, Costa Rica is in ways still a developing country – leading to water quality degradation.  Costa Rica’s population and economy also heavily rely on exports of agricultural commodities.   Exploring how the bananas our students are buying in Michigan are negatively impacting ecosystems in Costa Rica will help our students truly grasp the positive and negative aspects of the global food economy.
• Despite the stereotypical impression that engineers dislike social sciences, engineering in today’s world requires interacting with different cultures, understanding socioeconomic equity, and consideration of ideas from diverse perspectives.  This is my fourth visit to Costa Rica and my impression is that the Costa Rican culture is typified by friendly people, a rich history, and great food!
• Plus we’ll still have a”white” Christmas as we will be spending December 24-26 at Monte Verde (in a tropical cloud forest)!

Pura vida!


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