August 12, 2011

Thoughts from Dr. Unander, TAM class professor


Au Sable Institute: ‘Tropical Agriculture and Missions’
Costa Rica: May/June 2011

‘Tropical Agriculture & Missions’ (TAM), offered since 2003, was taught in Costa Rica for the first time. Eight students from five schools were enrolled, and a Costa Rican student sat in as well. Typical of the TAM course, they were a fantastic class to teach, most already seriously considering service in poorer regions of the world. They were hard-working, but also a fun group, too, very adventurous, quickly bonding, and patient with delays in the schedule.

About two of the three weeks were based in a town called Vara Blanca. At  6,000 ft, temperatures were in the 50s-70s, and it rained heavily, often daily. Our collaborator, Eastern Univ. alum Tomás Dozier, grew up in Vara Blanca, returning with his family after an earthquake in Jan. 2009 killed dozens and left many homeless. After the initial relief work, a community survey revealed that a high school was a high priority. Tomás and Chelsea Dozier formed ADE (Association for Development through Education), and began a HS. They and a small staff, mostly alumni of Eastern University’s graduate program in Intl. Development use a what they call a zero down development model in which they are not funded and simply work, offering educational services to support themselves and the projects. ADE has long-term access to a cabin in a primary rainforest that is ideal for an Au Sable class, and they facilitated visits with farmers, research centers, national parks, etc.

Besides units on the scientific foundations of sustainable agriculture, basic tropical ecology, and some missiology, we visited farmers, and observed the upland rainforest and regional geology of Vara Blanca. That includes the effects from the very live Poas Volcano, 10,000 ft high, and close enough to us that we could drive to visit the billowing crater in an hour.  The first week, groups of the HS students gave presentations to our class about the types of agriculture in the valley (strawberries, dairy cattle, some dairy goats, trout, and ornamentals, especially potted ferns, for export to the US).  The third week, groups of Au Sable students gave seminars to the HS students, each covering a plant family – its basic botany and agricultural & nutritional value. Two Spanish-speaking students within the TAM class got to try their translation skills, too!


Although this was the trial run of TAM in Costa Rica, response of the students was positive. Besides class units and visits with farmers in greater Vara Blanca, Costa Rica offers world class research and teaching institutions. Ones we visited for orientations included CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza), an international research center established in 1940, governed by a board from 14 Latin American countries; EARTH University, an international university founded in 1990 to train students in environmentally sustainable tropical agriculture, with an emphasis on hands-on practice and business training, and a student body of 400 drawn from across the global Tropics; OTS La Selva Station (Organization for Tropical Studies, founded in 1968 by a biology research consortium, located in a lowland rainforest that receives 4 m of rain a year, and abuts one of the largest national parks in Costa Rica, that ascends to peaks ca. 10,000 ft high); national park visits that included Poas Volcano (looming over Vara Blanca), the Arenal Volcano area, Cahuita, a Caribbean tropical maritime forest near the Panama border; and CoopeSarapiqui, a fair-trade coffee-growers cooperative that exports to North America and the European Union.
Educationally, doing the class in CR seemed successful. It was harder to cover certain science units, but other topics were facilitated by living in a rainforest, in walking distance to small farms owned by hardworking, poor families. Spiritually, I was blessed how my students quickly made friends in the community, volunteered to clean and cook, and, in some cases got in significant discussions with neighbors about life in Vara Blanca. Like all small towns, there are many dynamics going on in VB.


 All went so well, and we will see how this course pans out in the lives of the students who took it, too. It will be exciting to learn where they end up in years to come! I am hopeful Costa Rica may be a good long-term home for the TAM course, and perhaps other Au Sable classes, too.

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