Junior ERE students, such as Tom Decker, take the initiative to apply to several projects in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate (NSF REU) directory. This past summer a few ERE students were accepted, and Tom’s REU involved research through the University of South Florida’s Globalization and Community Health Field School in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  The NSF-REU program is an opportunity for students all over the country to gain experience in methods and practices of research before entering the graduate school. These programs are 10-week long summer internships and are orchestrated by universities throughout the United States in STEM topics from International Engineering to Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences.

Tom’s REU team at the continental divide on the Monteverde Reserve. His team consisted of members from California, Florida, Virginia, Vermont, North Carolina, Ohio, Idaho, and New York.

Tom’s REU team at the continental divide on the Monteverde Reserve. His team consisted of members from California, Florida, Virginia, Vermont, North Carolina, Ohio, Idaho, and New York.

Tom worked with Drs. Nancy and David Himmelgreen of the Field School in a partnership with the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica to offer a combination of research in Anthropology and Environmental Engineering. After being accepted into the Field School, Tom participated in three weeks of online classes to learn more about international travel, the background of Costa Rica, and Anthropology and Engineering research methods. Tom then started seven weeks with 11 fellow students with majors in science, engineering and anthropology in Monteverde, Costa Rica. This student team explored community perceptions of animal waste management on farms, designed wastewater management solutions through anaerobic digestion and safe disposal methods, and collected data on the general health of the people in the Monteverde Zone. As part of his research in anaerobic digestion, Tom and his team learned about biodigestors, Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blankets, and Anaerobic Baffle Reactors.

Tom holding a pitcher containing a mixture of cow manure, pig manure, and sweet cheese whey that was being analyzed for its ability to breakdown anaerobically. The farm had an inefficient wastewater treatment system and Tom’s team designed a system that irrigated fields using treated waste.

Tom holding a pitcher containing a mixture of cow manure, pig manure, and sweet cheese whey that was being analyzed for its ability to breakdown anaerobically. The farm had an inefficient wastewater treatment system and Tom’s team designed a system that irrigated fields using treated waste.

Tom gained invaluable first-hand experience internationally, branching out from environmental engineering to gain insights and skills of a social scientist. Mixing engineering and sociology sounds risky, but it is strongly recommended by the National Academy of Engineering as the path toward appropriate design. Tom learned how to administer comprehensive surveys, focus groups, free listing, and pile sorting exercises, as well as medical anthropology techniques to determine human health. Through the Field School, Tom built upon his engineering curriculum by gaining experience in other areas of study and broadened his knowledge of the problems that communities in developing nations can face.

Tubular biodigestor in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where Tom worked with other biodigestor designs.

Tubular biodigestor in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where Tom worked with other biodigestor designs.

Tom’s first two years at SUNY-ESF focused his growth as an international development and humanitarian engineer. He has been involved in water and alternative energy projects in Honduras and Peru. He has also played a key role in establishing a 1 credit discussion course in our ERE program called “Appropriate Technologies in Developing Countries”. This course explains the food, water, health, and energy security issues that are present throughout the world and the appropriate solutions that are available to solve them. Tom’s involvement in both the education and on-the-ground implementation aspects of international development and community partnership is what motivated him to pursue this REU opportunity in the beautiful Tropical Cloud Forest of Monteverde.

Part of Tom’s research was to understand how drinking water was cleaned through these massive slow sand filters.

Part of Tom’s research was to understand how drinking water was cleaned through these massive slow sand filters.

Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in Central and South America and has pride about providing almost the whole country with clean drinking water. The above photo shows the largest drinking water treatment facility in the country and provides water for hundreds of thousands of people in San Jose.

Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in Central and South America and has pride about providing almost the whole country with clean drinking water. The above photo shows the largest drinking water treatment facility in the country and provides water for hundreds of thousands of people in San Jose.

 

 

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