Collaborative Framework Enhances Study of Sustainable Practices

This June, Heiner Castillo Dittel will lead at least eight U.S. students on a tour of one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet—to the volcanoes, rainforests, and plantations of Costa Rica—so they can experience firsthand the sustainability efforts being promoted by a collaboration between his Costa Rican school and several U.S. universities.

As the world celebrated Earth Day on April 22—an annual event demonstrating support for environmental protection—Dittel and his U.S. colleagues were putting the final touches on their third summer-abroad program under the Consortium for Sustainability, which unites Costa Rica's EARTH University with 10 U.S. universities to focus on sustainability in agriculture, animal production, forestry, community development, and tourism.

"In the past, we focused on exporting agricultural products, but in the past 10 to 15 years, tourism has become one of the most important sources of income for the country," said EARTH academic administrator Dittel, who this summer will teach a course on improving rural tourism in Costa Rica. "We're trying to help these communities create better roads and drinking water, and help local people learn English so they can attend to visitors."

Costa Rica tends to be an ideal location for students interested in sustainability, in part because of the Costa Rican government's strong support for environmental sustainability and conservation. At EARTH University— where on-campus farms supply the majority of the school's fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat, organic waste is turned into crop fertilizer, and banana stalks are reused to make banana paper—visiting students are exposed to 400 young leaders from more than 30 countries.

So far, the consortium has offered one abroad session in the summer of 2011, offered two sessions in the summer of 2012, and will be offering two sessions this summer. Through lectures, research, and field trips, students help to find solutions for local community challenges. For instance, visits with farmers allow students to explore ways to improve rural life by helping to create sustainable agriculture.

What are some of the benefits of such a cross-border collaboration?

Nancy Irlbeck, associate dean of academic affairs for Colorado State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, a consortium member, says the partnership exposes students to a broad spectrum of faculty expertise and university resources. It can also reduce costs, in part by eliminating redundancies across institutions.

"Not only do you have the class perspective, but you have the draw of experiential learning," says Irlbeck, who has sent a handful of students to EARTH. "You don't just talk about growing bananas, you plant and take care of banana trees, harvest the bananas, and go through the marketing process. They may be working with bananas in Costa Rica, but when they come back, they might work with sugar beets or peaches or apples or grapes. The principles of sustainable production and marketing are similar. They're thinking outside of the box, so that they're not trapped into traditional ways of doing things, so that they're open to problem-solving and critical thinking."

Also teaching courses this summer will be Dr. Dale Pracht of the University of Florida and renowned scientist Dr. David Skole of Michigan State University. Other consortium members include California Polytechnic State University, the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge, the University of Missouri, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and North Carolina State University.

"In joining together, these institutions have the possibility of offering courses that can attract students from all the member schools," said Nico Evers, EARTH's director of international academic relations. "Up until now, the focus has been on sustainable agricultural practices in the tropics, sustainable animal production practices, tropical agro-forestry focused on carbon and climate change, sustainable community development, and sustainable rural tourism."

One of the challenges the consortium faces is convincing students to forego summer jobs and internships to travel to Costa Rica. Another is trying to lure students from abroad programs led by professors they know.

"We send about 350 students abroad to about 25 countries each year," said Shelley Taylor, director of study abroad programs for Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a consortium member that has yet to send a student to a consortium semester at EARTH. "The faculty-led courses are very popular. Students have to decide—do they want to go to Costa Rica with a professor they already know? Or with a professor they don't know from Michigan State?"

Regardless, Taylor says, the three years she's been involved in the consortium have paid off.

"It's opened a network of agriculture and life science international contacts so that I better understand what they're doing in their programs," she said. "I have a new network of people to communicate with as I look for new opportunities for my students."

Dana Wilkie is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.