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      Global Learning Experience

      Students Study Coffee Culture and Biodiversity in Costa Rica

      Planting trees in Costa Rica

      Muah Al-Qahtani and Jorge, a coffee farmer, plant a Paulownia tree.

      For the first time professors in environmental science and humanities teamed up to teach a course together – and not just any course, but a 10-day intensive course taught entirely onsite in Costa Rica. The course was taught at several field locations in Costa Rica including the Las Lajas Coffee Farm, where WU Brew is created.  

      The course is one of a number of programs that are being taught in Costa Rica, as a part of the research and sustainability initiative at Widener University. In 2016, the university purchased a villa known as CARES21 (short for Consortium of Agro-ecological Research and Education for Sustainability for the 21st Century), to provide students with a unique opportunity to develop community based research projects with academic institutions in Costa Rica as well as farmers and non-governmental organizations. The house is strategically located in one of Costa Rica’s main coffee growing regions in the central valley near San Jose.  

      The course, Coffee Culture and Biodiversity in Costa Rica, was taught by Dr. Beatriz Urraca, director of gender and women’s studies and associate professor of Spanish, and Dr. Steve Madigosky, professor of environmental science and sustainability. As an elective through the College of Arts & Sciences, the course was open to all majors. Eight students attended this year, but the instructors hope to see the course grow and become a part of the school’s curriculum.  

      The course was a combination of field classes taught by Madigosky and Urraca along with coffee expert growers, producers and cuppers. Students were required to work closely with the farmers, Costa Rican students and other organizations as part of their requirements. They maintained extensive field notes, produced a reflective journal, and submitted a final research paper as part of the course.

      Students worked to rehabilitate badly damaged coffee fields by planting trees. They studied the soil and wildlife that supports the coffee growing eco-system. “In Costa Rica coffee is largely grown as a monoculture which is quite destructive to the environment,” Madigosky said.  “It exerts a huge impact on plants and animals so if we can arrest this process we can help preserve the biodiversity of the region.”  

      Coffee is an important crop for Costa Rica. “Everything in this area of Costa Rica revolves around coffee,” Urraca said. “Everyone is connected to the coffee culture. It’s a family business and central to their way of life.”

      The students also learned the importance of coffee “cupping” or tasting. “People train for years to critically discern the various tastes of coffee and the tasters determine the price for the market,” Urraca said.

      Madigosky thought the experience was really energizing. “The material covered provided students with an important look into how coffee is produced from start to finish.”

      Coffee tasting was just one of the highlights for Muath Al-Qahtani, a junior criminal justice major who participated in the class. “Growing coffee isn’t cheap; and it’s a very ingrained process in the Costa Rican culture,” he said. “I enjoyed learning more of the science behind it.”

      Al-Qahtani, a nature lover who has a passion for travel, highly recommends participating in a course like this. “I was able to not only travel somewhere new, but I also got to experience the culture among the locals.” He has a greater appreciation for how people in Costa Rica value their resources, especially with the impact of climate change.

      This is just one of the lessons that Urraca and Madigosky wanted to convey to students. “We hope that this entices others who want to experience the richness of the culture while helping to preserve the resources of Costa Rica,” Madigosky said.

      Courses like this help expose students to new cultures in a very personal way. “The Las Lajas farm in Costa Rica, allows for a number of different course options related to science and culture, while providing a hands on experience for students,” Urraca said. 


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