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Grad Student and Alum Lead New Program in Costa Rica

January 29, 2020

By Anna de Cheke Qualls 

This time last year, College of Education PhD student and College of Engineering Keystone Program Instructor Mike Galczynski was in Costa Rica to scout locations for a possible engineering study abroad program. He and alum Natasha Almeida e Andrade ('12 PhD, Civil Engineering) hoped to explore this country, known for its many sustainable technologies, with UMD undergraduates.

Andrade, originally from Brazil, is a lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering and specializes in teaching undergraduate courses in Environmental Engineering.  She has a keen interest in the role engineers can play in creating and maintaining sustainable development. Galczynski, a doctoral student in math and science education, has a background in designing and delivering overseas academic programs, including some in Greece, the Czech Republic, Italy and Iceland.

Costa Rica was an ideal location to study sustainability and renewable energy, as almost 100% of the electricity consumed there comes from renewable sources. As Galczynski and Andrade planned the Costa Rica curriculum, they hoped to inform students of the consequences of climate change, and offer this idea to the Clark School of Engineering and Education Abroad.

Thanks to Clark's Dean of Undergraduate Programs Dr. Ken Kinger, and Sonya Henry, Program Coordinator in Education Abroad, Costa Rica: Fire and Jungle: Sustainability, Climate Change and Renewable Energy Systems launched as a winter course this January. Fifteen students from various undergraduate engineering programs traveled for two weeks to various relevant sites within Costa Rica, including volcanos, a coffee plantation, the Cachi Hydroelectric Power Plant, a biogas powerplant, and the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE)'s Las Pailas Geothermal Power Plant.

Andrade said that two Costa Rica sites, Lake Cachi and its hydroelectric power plant and the Lake Arenal region, close to La Fortuna, connected the curriculum to sustainabilty in Costa Rica.

"We were able to get really close to the dam," she said. "It really showcased to the students all of the engineering and design decisions that had to be made for such a system to work as intended."

Lake Arenal, she said, "showed the incredible connection that the Ticos have with their environment. This region has a volcano but also a rainforest. Both are extremely important to the people, and their decisions about energy generation, consumption and the region's amazing biodiversity. Our students enjoyed engaging with these places." 

Renewable energy systems and climate change are a longtime focus for Civil Engineering undergraduate student Amanda Hardesty. She found the Rincon de la Vieja National Park most impressive.

"This was a beautiful park that also served as an educational exploration, and showed us how much geothermal activity existed in this area," Hardesty said. "Costa Rica is filled with geothermal wonders such as hot rivers, geothermal pools, volcanoes, and much more, and the country has capitalized on their existence in terms of renewable energy. Exploring these wonders both through immersion and in the classroom solidified my scientific knowledge, and inspired me to learn more as I continue my academic journey."

Students explored climate change, geothermal energy, sustainable farming and conservation, hydroelectric power, and bio fuels, and engaged in a group project focused on hydroelectric and geothermal energy. It was also important to understand Tico culture and its green economy.

Galczynski says that the excellent location and diverse opportunities for hands-on experience were valuable for the students. 

"The time I spent exploring the country of Costa Rica last winter proved to be invaluable this year, as we were able to successfully synthesize all of those experiences and create a truly well-rounded and immersive program.  Overall we believe that the course was a success, as the students were enthusiastic and engaged in all aspects of the program.  It was a great privilege to be able to work with my colleague Natasha Andrade and I look forward to running the course with her again next year."

(Photo credits: Mike Galczynski)

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