Gone With the Windmills

STEM students learn about sustainability in Costa Rica

Photos: Douglas Levere

By Andrew Coddington

“Sustainability is less about technology and more about mindset. ”
John D. Atkinson

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John Atkinson's TEDxBuffalo talk about sustainability.

Hiking a volcano, touring banana and coffee plantations, ascending through a cloud forest, all while spending time in a tropical paradise. It sounds like a perfect getaway, but for the 16 UB students enrolled in CIE 464 Sustainability in Latin America, winter break in Costa Rica was hard work … mostly.

Faculty director John D. Atkinson, assistant professor of environmental engineering, realized that few engineering and science students were able to study abroad for whole semesters at a time. So he created this shorter winter session course, focusing on Costa Rica as an ideal destination to observe sustainability. The country has announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2021 and is well on its way: Today, approximately 98 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources, and more than 25 percent of its land is protected forest.

Over 17 days, students explored some of Costa Rica’s energy resources, including the geothermal plant beneath Miravalles Volcano and the Guanacaste Wind Farm, as well as ecotourism destinations, corporate plantations and family farms. They were tasked with considering how methods, scale of production and other factors affect sustainability, and how better practices could be incorporated back home.

To Atkinson, the biggest takeaway was the pride that Costa Ricans have in their country’s progress. “You can pull any person off the street and ask them about energy, and they will gush about their wind turbines or how clean their water is,” he says, remarking on the irony that a developing country could make such great strides while many advanced ones drag their feet. “Sustainability,” Atkinson says, “is less about technology and more about mindset.”

To that end, he gave the students one question to reflect upon in a post-trip final paper: “What now?”