EME students take a GREEN adventure to explore renewable energy in Costa Rica

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Energy engineering student Dan Conner on a river rafting wildlife tour up the Torino River.
Energy engineering student Dan Conner on a river rafting wildlife tour up the Torino River.
June 1, 2012

“That trip was the pinnacle; the crown jew­el of my summer. It reignited my passion for renewable energy and reaffirmed my initial motivations for studying energy engineering.” When Dan Conner returned from a study abroad experience in the summer of 2010, he was on a mission. The energy engineering student had just completed the new Global Renewable Energy Education Network (GREEN) program, and wanted to make sure other Penn State students would have the opportunity to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime experience. “I [did] a lot of work to increase awareness about the GREEN program on campus and helped set up the collaborative relationship that Penn State and GREEN share,” Conner explained.

The GREEN program is a 12-day educational excursion to Costa Rica that explores renewable energy use and sustainability practices. It offers university students a unique mix of education, adventure, and culture by essentially utilizing the country of Costa Rica as one big interactive classroom. Participating students not only attend lectures in geothermal power, wind energy, biomass, hydroelectric power, solar electricity, and sustainable living; but, they also take hands-on tours of six different facilities that put these alternative energies into practice. Coursework is capped off with the completion of a capstone design project, in which students work in teams to develop an independent project dealing with topics related to renewable energy, public policy, business, ecology, or environmental science. In between the site visits and lectures, students are treated to a number of exciting outings which include a trip to the Miravalles Volcano, rafting up the Torino River, and hiking through a jungle.

“GREEN introduced me to people who were passionate about renewable energy and sustainability,” Conner said. “It introduced me to a culture that embraced such technology and integrated it into daily life. The educational component was hands-on and based on actual observation instead of theoretical explanation. It showed me a glimpse of what was possible, and for the first time I was able to see the technology I was passionate about and had gone to school to study in action.”

Conner’s efforts to promote the GREEN program at Penn State have since paid off. The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences now sponsors up to 20 students a year to at­tend the program. In addition, these students also take a three-credit general education course to complement what they have learned in Costa Rica. More than half of the students who participate come from majors within the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME). “The GREEN program was the first time I had left North America, so I appreciated the opportunity to experience a different culture greatly,” said Theodore Edwards, a B.S. student in energy business and finance. Adds Jachin Spotts, a B.S. student in energy engineering, “The GREEN program is enriched with learning and adventure. This trip was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Costa Rica is an ideal location to observe alternative energy in action. According to the GREEN program website, it is the only place in the world with five types of renewable energy facilities within driving distance of each other. Touring some of these plants with unprecedented access to their technology and operations is often the highlight of the GREEN program for EME students. Referring to his tours of a geothermal plant, a biomass plant, two hydroelectric dams, and a wind farm, Edwards explained, “One of the most rewarding parts of the GREEN experience was being able to experience all that my class work had taught me. It added context to, and informed my schoolwork. The main thing I learned is that the technology which enables Costa Rica to benefit so greatly from renewable energy is rapidly evolving and increasingly scalable.”

Students also enjoy participating in various community projects. “We went on a reforestation hike and were able to plant trees to help the forest grow, and we also did community service by placing a rain water collection system on a local home,” said Spotts.

By the end of the program, students find themselves a part of a ready-made network of peers who share an interest in renewable energy and sustainability. It’s a network that continually pulls some members back to Costa Rica.

“I will be returning to Costa Rica this summer as one of three counselors leading a GREEN session of approximately 25 students form universities across the United States and five other countries,” Conner said. “I have no doubt that this will be an extremely meaningful experience.”