Beyond the Classroom: A Trip to Costa Rica Brings Studies to Life

May 15, 2014

Kelly Doyle helps build a bio-digester on a farm in Costa Rica.
Credit Kelly Doyle

WPSU’s occasional series “Beyond the Classroom” takes a look at learning beyond university walls. Today Kelly Doyle is a junior double majoring in “Community, Environment and Development” and “Environmental Resource Management” with a minor in “International Agriculture.”  She tells us about how those studies came to life on her recent trip to Central America.

Developing sustainable communities and maintaining the health of our world is something I’m passionate about. My classes have helped me understand the importance of proper resource management. But a recent hands-on experience has taken my education to a whole new level.

Over spring break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with an Environmental Resource Management course.  It was my first time out of the country besides visiting Canada. Our trip to Costa Rica was an incredible experience. We worked with Earth University, a university dedicated to sustainable agriculture research, outreach and education.  Having the chance to learn in such a different culture and atmosphere than Penn State gave me a new perspective on my studies. 

As a part of the trip, we spent a day on a small dairy farm putting our classroom learning to work.  We used simple tools to build a bio-digester.  Bio-digesters collect the methane from animal waste that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.  The methane can then be used on the farm for energy. The bio-digester we created can fuel a gas stove for a couple of meals a day. It’s also a model that other farmers nearby can reference to build their own bio-digesters.

The bio-digester is labor intensive, but simple to make. First we dug [digging, but wind is bad] a long ditch to collect the animal waste. A canal leads from the animal’s living area to the ditch, which we lined with a plastic sheet.  Then we made a bag to hold the waste and collect the methane it releases. 

We used buckets and simple plastic piping to create the rest of the system. With everyone working together we were able to complete the project in one visit.

Bio-digesters not only help the environment by keeping methane out of the atmosphere, but they help local farmers build a sustainable small-scale energy source. The farmer was very thankful for our efforts. And not only did he learn from us, but we learned from him.

Sustainable agricultural practices like this work toward social, economic and environmental balance. And this simple model can be used at farms around the world. My experience in Costa Rica helped me see the importance and reality of what I’m studying at Penn State.  And the real world experience adds a dimension to my learning that lectures and books could never provide.  I got to dig the soil, cut the materials and lay out the system alongside other students, professors and farmers.  As I continue my studies I hope to learn even more about sustainable agriculture through other experiences “beyond the classroom.”