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Earth University

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Worldchanging Twin Cities blogger, Andi McDaniel, is currently traveling and doing research in Central and South America. She recently sent this report from Costa Rica:

It would be hard for me to say anything negative about Earth University, in Guácimo, Limón, Costa Rica, given my current state. I'm lounging in the peaceful on-campus "ecolodge," sipping on coconut milk the way nature intended it—straight from the coconut itself, which was grown right here, on one of the University's many experimental farms.

16-year old Earth University is unlike any undergraduate institution I've ever seen. That's partly due to the setting; the 570,280-square foot campus is lined with banana and palm trees and brightly colored heliconias (rainforest plants reminiscent of the popular Byrds of Paradise) and populated with a diverse—and rather vocal—variety of bird species. It' a far cry from the oak trees and ivy-covered brick of the Massachussetts variety.

But other distinctions are what make Earth University truly unique in the academic world—such as its student body, which is comprised of about 400 students from parts of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia -- specifically, from areas characterized by a humid tropical environment. The school recruits students from often remote rural communities for their academic aptitude, leadership abilities, and commitment to reinvesting their educations in their countries of origin.

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As is the case in Limon, Costa Rica, many of the students' home countries face numerous environmental problems, resulting from economic hardships that drive communities to cash in on their resources in the form of logging, development, or large industrial banana plantations -- the very resources that, if managed responsibly, could sustain them indefinitely.

While first and second-year Earth students take a few typical undergraduate classes (i.e., Intro to Communication) -- the idea behind the University's rigorous curriculum is not to provide a broad overview, but to graduate "agronomic engineers," or professionals who are as entrepreneurially eager as they are knowledgeable about agriculture and the environment. The hope is that they'll become owners of small businesses that are economically sound, ethical, environmentally sustainable models for the local community.

To learn these skills, Earth students do community internships, develop and evaluate their own enterprises, and participate in the numerous research projects sponsored by the school, such as one evaluating the carbon sequestration potential of agricultural or forestry land in the humid tropics, and Earth's initiative to use wetlands to clean its own wastewater. Earth is also known within Costa Rica for its development of "Banana Paper" -- the result of a research project focused on decreasing waste on large banana plantations, and for the yogurt and energy bars they produce and sell on campus.

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The Earth campus sprawls across a vast area, and while navigable by bike, it's rather inhospitable to pedestrians such as myself. At the conclusion of my two days here, I'm disappointed to still have not seen the campus commercial banana farm, which I've heard is a major supplier for Whole Foods. I did get to visit the livestock area, where I met some 4-day old buffalo, which will become work animals, and several charming groups of piglets. The livestock area is designed to recirculate the wastewater it generates, by filtering it through a series of small canals full of aquatic plants that can themselves be harvested for pig feed.

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Unfortunately the school cafeteria has not kept up with the progressive pace of the rest of the campus. Aside from the delicious yogurt, the meals at Earth were nothing special. But in a place so dedicated to keeping its practices and its philosophy in alignment, the cafeteria's rice and beans will soon be shining examples of what the university preaches. There's certainly a good incentive for students to push for this change. In fact, given how carefully calculated the student experience is at Earth University, that may be exactly what they intended. I'll try the burritos again in five years and provide a full report.

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