A spring 2023 elective sustainability course offered by Ohio Northern University’s College of Engineering encouraged students to embrace the unfamiliar to develop uncommon approaches to problems ranging from infrastructure challenges to communication disruptions. Titled “Sustainable Engineering in Puerto Rico,” the course included an unforgettable spring break trip to that territory, where students observed first-hand the culture, climate, agriculture, political structures and more.
Professors say the combined classroom instruction and study-abroad trip instilled in future engineers the ability to reframe their approaches to solutions. After all, learning about how a sugar cane plantation operates or how essential a bridge is to a village is rendered more meaningful when you actually visit those places, traverse the land, and talk with the people who are directly impacted. Perspectives were widened.
The course specifically explored engineering risks and opportunities in Puerto Rico. Topics included energy generation and distribution, clean water access, transportation infrastructure, sanitary and stormwater systems, affordable housing and communication systems. With a focus on societal wellbeing via design approaches promoting the local economy and environmental stewardship, students’ final assignment was to identify opportunities to improve infrastructure in the territory “with consideration of the United Nations (17) Sustainable Development Goals.” Climate change risks were also considered.
Todd France, Ph.D., associate professor of engineering education, scouted Puerto Rico locations and worked with Lauren H. Logan, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental engineering, Bryan Boulanger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and other colleagues to design the course.
Although part of U.S. territory, Puerto Rico remains distinctive enough to provide myriad learning opportunities, France said. Distinguished by its rich indigenous and Spanish heritage, the Caribbean island features scenic mountains, waterfalls, white beaches, a tropical rainforest, and centuries-old fortresses. Puerto Rico means “rich port” in Spanish, but has its fair share of socioeconomic struggles compounded by natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
“My goal was to look for environments that were different than the Midwest,” said France. “I think it’s important for people in general, and especially for engineers, to be aware of the fact that the ways we address things like energy issues and water issues here can be similar or entirely different from other countries.”
Logan, who accompanied France and students to Puerto Rico, said she immediately took note of the different building styles, many of which featured flat roofs and included cinderblock.
Interactions fostered a greater appreciation for nature and ecology, she added. There were native frog sightings. A student who is a birder brought his binoculars and camera.
The students were impressed by the reverence Puerto Ricans have for their heritage and history, and by the kind interactions they experienced.
“There is so much to be said for getting out of one’s own hometown and region and culture, and seeing how other people live and adapt, isn’t there?” Logan pointed out.
At an historic sugar plantation, students learned how essential machetes are to production, how their designs have adapted over time, and their influence on the country’s history of slavery.
The ONU group also visited a coffee plantation; El Yunque National Rainforest; different coastlines; a fortress; and the historic center of Viejo San Juan, where narrow, brick-lined streets that served the community before automobiles arrived still exist. Arecibo Observatory where, for more than half a century, the world’s largest single-aperture telescope existed, was on the itinerary too, as was volunteering for a local organization that restores hurricane-damaged homes.
A highlight was kayaking through a mangrove and bioluminescent lagoon, where glowing protozoa make the water look like “glitter,” Logan said. She characterized the experience as one of the top 10 of her life.
The course and trip were “not just about learning, but about participating in the process of improvement,” Logan noted.
France said students were encouraged to focus on one of their particular engineering interests. End-of-semester presentations included “what they’ve learned and what the current status is in Puerto Rico and how they might make a pitch to a governmental agency or nonprofit organization or to Congress for making improvements in a particular infrastructure area,” he explained.
“One of the things that I’ve been really mindful of is to try to have discussions in class and while we’re there about the current status of the island,” France said. “In doing so, you are, of course, going to point out problems that they’re facing. But I also want to be sure to remind students that we also have very similar problems here in the states, such as from an agricultural standpoint with all of the runoff going into our streams that causes problems such as algae growth in the western basin of Lake Erie.” There are lawsuits involving corporations, politicians and corruption, he said. “So, just constantly trying to remind them that it’s not a better or worse thing. It’s just different. And that there are lots of similarities” in terms of sustainability challenges, he continued.
“Puerto Rico faces some unique challenges when it comes to things like housing and infrastructure,” said recent mechanical engineering graduate Isaac Strahan, who is interested in engineering from a global perspective. “Not only has the island suffered the consequences of several natural disasters in recent years, but it has to import a lot of its resources and has a struggling economy. As a result, the trip taught us a lot about building and developing in such a way that the unique needs of Puerto Rico are met. Not only did we focus on reducing environmental impact, but also on how to make the most of what resources are available, and how to build in such a way that recovery from natural disasters is a lot easier than it was in the aftermath of events like Hurricane Maria.”
Strahan, a Tiffin, Ohio native, said he learned how and why Puerto Rico and the United States share many needs, such as that pertaining to more sustainable energy production. “One major area of advocacy in Puerto Rico to solve their energy crisis is for community solar projects that are resistant to natural disasters and produce electricity without emissions,” he noted. “I think that sort of project could also have a serious positive impact in the mainland U.S.”
Sierra Caskey, a junior civil engineering major with a concentration in environmental engineering, said a key sustainability-related lesson she learned from the course was “how the choices you make directly relate to your environmental impact,” and how the economy plays a significant role in those choices. “Understanding how to use local resources in various ways is also crucial from a sustainability and economic standpoint,” she said.
Caskey, from Englewood, Ohio, thinks the U.S. could learn from some of Puerto Rico’s practices. For instance, if more people relied less on air conditioning in the summer, “a big difference would be seen” in terms of reduced electrical use, costs and environmental impact, she contended. Even with year-round average temperatures ranging from 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit, Puerto Rico’s structures are designed for maximum air flow and minimal electrical use.
Multiple students took note of Puerto Rico’s concerted efforts to preserve natural landscapes and historic sites. “Being able to hike all around the rainforest was an incredible experience and the land had quite a few historical buildings hidden within the dense trees,” said Wes Richards, a mechanical engineering major from Pinckney, Michigan. “It helped me understand just how important nature preserves are for both society and the environment. There’s a natural beauty to relatively untouched land, which I feel that everybody should be able to have access to.”
Experiencing Puerto Rico in person inspired and fueled students’ final projects. Richards’ project, for instance, focused on two U.N. sustainable development goals: good health and well-being and reduced inequalities. “I’ve noticed that their telecommunications infrastructure is incredibly vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes,” he said. “With the large dependences on cell phones to call emergency services, it leaves a lot of people without a means to call for help.”
Richards recommended that Puerto Rico consider implementing a long-range radio balloon called Combat SkySat, which the U.S. military has used to establish communications during operations such as desert warfare. The system’s 600-mile range would cover the entire island. “This solution has a very low economic and environmental impact with promise to save a lot of lives following natural disasters,” Richards contended. “This would reduce the number of excess deaths that result from untreated diseases and conditions.”
Caskey’s final project recommends an infrastructure improvement: adding a small incline to buildings’ roof pitch. “Due to structures having flat roofs, this results in large amounts of standing water,” which can result in collapse. Adding a roof pitch of ¼ inch to 12 inches would mitigate this issue by allowing rain runoff “while also remaining hurricane resistant,” she said.
Strahan’s project focused on urban design improvements. “Some of the goals that I think are important with respect to Puerto Rico’s development are building sustainable cities and developments, promoting good health and well-being, and reducing inequalities,” he said. “These are all areas that can be improved upon by devoting resources to solutions that create a positive impact on the lives of everyone.”
This story is part of a series on sustainability efforts and studies at Ohio Northern University.