A month-​​long field study in sus­tain­ability to Costa Rica this past spring got off to a shaky start — mud­slides turned a 40-​​mile car trip into a four-​​hour adven­ture — but it yielded a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity for the nine North­eastern stu­dents who participated.

The stu­dents attended classes on cal­cu­lating carbon foot­prints, eco-​​effectiveness, how local busi­nesses suc­ceed, and sus­tain­ability of the food chain, and took on projects that strength­ened both their edu­ca­tion and the local community.

They became immersed in a dif­ferent cul­ture, a dif­ferent set of values, not only from their class­room expe­ri­ence but also the work they did,” said Ron Whit­field, a lec­turer in the Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, who led the trip. “They were taken out of their com­fort zone and returned home trans­formed in their daily lives.”

Sus­tain­ability, health, and secu­rity, rep­re­sent the university’s over­ar­ching research themes as North­eastern sci­en­tists pursue use-​​inspired research to solve global and soci­etal chal­lenges in these areas.

The field study came about through a part­ner­ship with EARTH Uni­ver­sity, an inter­na­tional agri­cul­tural uni­ver­sity that teaches sus­tain­able prac­tices. In one major project, North­eastern and EARTH stu­dents teamed up to study whether to reopen a nearby mango pro­cessing plant or relo­cate it else­where. They had to factor in the finan­cial, envi­ron­mental, and social ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the plant’s loca­tion, as well as how far trac­tors would trans­port the man­goes to the plant and local shops.

The stu­dents also built a play­ground at a one-​​room school­house using recy­cled mate­rials. They col­lected items such as used tires, wood, and rope to build a seesaw and hop­scotch court and hang a tire swing from a tree. They hiked to a nearby reser­voir to learn about water man­age­ment. EARTH Uni­ver­sity itself even served as a learning tool—the campus uses biodi­gestors to trans­form animal waste and other refuse into methane gas, which is used for cooking and gen­er­ating electricity.

The North­eastern stu­dents got a truer sense of the Costa Rican cul­ture when they lived for sev­eral days with local fam­i­lies, where they had oppor­tu­ni­ties to teach as well as learn. In one instance, stu­dents living on a Macadamia nut farm used their engi­neering back­ground to lead an exper­i­ment aimed at extracting and col­lecting the oil from bad nuts that are nor­mally wasted — which the farm’s owner can sell oil to cos­metics and food companies.

Pabel Mar­tinez, an eco­nomics major, said the trip was an eye-​​opening expe­ri­ence that has prompted changes in his daily life. He said that he now pays much more atten­tion to his home elec­tricity usage, and he enrolled in an envi­ron­mental eco­nomics course this fall, when he enters his third year at Northeastern.

I think it’s so impor­tant for any­body to go abroad and expe­ri­ence life out­side your own little world in the United States,” Mar­tinez said.