Service Learning Course Establishes Environmental Science Lab in Puerto Rico

  • A sign welcomes visitors to the Reserva Natural La Cienaga Las Cucharillas conservation area on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. (Alicia Kidd)
  • Pitt environmental science undergraduate adviser and faculty member Kyle Whittinghill (left) and Caras ecological projects manager Luis Marrero stand in front of a new generation of mangrove trees at Corredor Del Yaguazo that await planting. The Pitt Business Global Service Learning: Puerto Rico program took a multidisciplinary team of students into the island’s urban wetlands to aid local groups’ plans to establish a research center around these important natural areas. (Alicia Kidd)
  • A Caras volunteer (right) discusses a weather station at the wetland with College of Business Administration students Jack Conville and Francheska Pokora. (Alicia Kidd)
  • Cross-departmental collaboration at ground level: Students Roslynne Ravy, who is studying environmental science, and Jack Conville of the College of Business Administration work together to leave the field behind after field study in Puerto Rico’s urban wetlands. (Alicia Kidd)
  • The Pitt team, including Jack Conville (left) and Brian Walsh, saved time for some sightseeing as well, visiting Old San Juan as part of their Global Service Learning: Puerto Rico experience. (Alicia Kidd)

Learning to dodge fire ants isn’t a talent typically developed in a business class.

But it was part of the experience in Puerto Rico this spring for a multidisciplinary team of Pitt students from the College of Business Administration (CBA) and the Department of Geology and Environmental Science in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

The new long-term project, organized through the Pitt Business International Programs Office, is part of CBA’s annual spring term Service Learning in Organizations course, in which students apply their academic learning to a real-world project. Other teams in this spring’s global service-learning cohort advanced existing projects in Bolivia and in Trinidad.

This multiyear partnership in Puerto Rico aims to help establish a sustainable environmental science laboratory for the study of urban wetlands in conjunction with a local nonprofit, Caras con Causa. The field outpost for research and education ideally will attract scientists from the mainland United States as well as offer after-school science programs for local children. 

Environmental Studies Program director Danielle Andrews-Brown, whose background is in wetland and stream restoration, and environmental science adviser Kyle Whittinghill were on board with the project early in the planning.

Beyond serving as a breeding ground for many species of animals, urban wetlands act as natural buffers for the overflow of rainwater and flooding — making them particularly worthy of study and preservation in light of their important role during storms like Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

Mangrove trees are a key part of this ecosystem; part of the long-term plan is to restore those that were damaged in the hurricane.

The Pitt team traveled to Puerto Rico in mid-March to conduct field research — where they encountered the fire ants — and to meet with representatives from Caras and the community.

But first, the students did their homework.

The team spent the first six weeks of the term assessing feasibility and developing a scope of work, with input from the environmental science faculty.

Making a difference in the world

The three-credit Service Learning in Organizations course is offered each spring term at Pitt. In addition to classroom studies, students spend spring break advancing service-oriented consulting projects.  Students must have completed 24 credits on campus to participate.

The programs in Bolivia and Puerto Rico are in partnership with Pitt Business student organizations. Participants must be a member of a  PBSO

The program in Trinidad is in partnership with the Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics. Participants must be pursuing the certificate to participate.

Want to know what it’s really like? Read first-person accounts from CBA students in these and other programs on the Pitt Business to the World blog.

“We provided context for wetlands and the importance of wetlands,” said Andrews-Brown. “We also guided the students toward understanding the elements that should be considered when developing a teaching lab, as well as how it can be marketed and to what target audience.”

The students looked at existing field laboratories in the Caribbean and the southeastern United States as comparisons. They also surveyed field researchers to gauge their interest in the proposed lab. Their business plan included a pricing model for making the facility financially sustainable. 

The environmental science faculty consulted with Caras on the equipment that would be needed and discussed how to make the wetland and lab resources attractive to researchers from the mainland, as well as how to reach faculty and students who are less research-oriented, said Andrews-Brown.

“We know that the lab has the potential to be an incredible community asset,” said Brian Walsh, a junior in Pitt’s CBA. “In our project, we conducted an objective business analysis of the lab’s proposed operations. We examined challenges and opportunities, and came up with a plan to make the lab as effective as possible.”

While in Puerto Rico during spring break, the students also presented their work to representatives of the nonprofit Fundación Banco Popular to help support Caras’ nomination for a potentially game-changing $600,000 challenge grant award. A decision is expected in mid-August.

Next spring’s service learning class will continue the work, focusing on furthering the marketing pitch for the facility, said international programs coordinator Brad Miner. Meanwhile, CBA’s International Programs Office will provide continuity to maintain the relationship with the partners in Puerto Rico.

I’ve never been so inspired by a class at Pitt.

Brian Walsh, junior business student

The long-term nature and deep partnership differentiates this experience from a simple service project, Miner said. “It is impactful because it is concentrated.”

The environmental science faculty members are continuing to assist Caras as it equips the lab and installs field instrumentation.

They’re also developing plans for Geographic Information System spatial mapping projects. Whittinghill said she will be working with students this fall to use the system to examine past land use change and current hydrology in and around the mangrove wetland. 

Beyond sharing academic expertise, Whittinghill said she’s excited to support Caras' mission of social justice through education and to work on a project that directly involves the local communities.

“We are working through additional future goals in order to complement the work Caras is doing. We want our engagement to be meaningful and useful,” said Andrews-Brown.

“I’ve never been so inspired by a class at Pitt,” said Walsh. “This class, the people at Caras, they have such a passion for service. It lit a passion for me. I want to dedicate a career to service and am incredibly grateful for this experience.”

The experience had additional meaning for Roslynne Ravy, a senior majoring in environmental science, whose family is from Puerto Rico. She expects that the Caras field laboratory will expand opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to study science and biology in a lab.

“It’s giving them a whole new chance at life,” Ravy said. 

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