Cassandra Johnson is a fourth-year chemical engineering student at Northeastern University from Issaquah, WA. She recently visited our Belize program with a group of engineering students, and was kind enough to share her experience with the world. Want to see our work in action like Cassandra? Travel with us!
Cassandra’s post appeared originally on the website of Northeastern University's College of Engineering.
As engineers, sometimes we can get caught up in all the math and science and forget the people that we’re creating the products and technologies for. When I saw the advertisement for the engineering service trip to Belize I was excited by the opportunity to experience another culture and to see how engineering might fit into an agricultural community. The trip was a partnership with Sustainable Harvest International. I thought it was unique that Sustainable Harvest International seeks farmers who are looking to make changes to their agricultural practices, instead of forcing farmers to change their ways.
The Northeastern University group that went on the trip consisted of twelve undergraduate engineering students. The trip took place in the southern part of Belize known as the Toledo District. On work days we drove two hours to communities deep in the forest where we met with families who were working with Sustainable Harvest International on sustainable farming techniques.
Each family had a house surrounded by chickens, horses, pigs, and other livestock, along with gardens and acres of various crops. These families sustain themselves using these resources, which is why teaching the best agriculture practices is so important.
We helped members of the communities make chicken coops, pig pens, gardens, and solar dryers. We also helped with reforestation efforts by planting cacao trees and coconut trees. A big cash crop in Belize is the cacao bean—Farmers will use the solar drying panels to dry cacao beans that they either sell or consume.
Typically, once the farmers learn sustainable agriculture techniques, they have enough crops to sell and make a living. In the past, farmers would take part in practices as “slash and burn” where they burned forests down to farm the fertile soil underneath. They didn’t realize that they were destroying the forest and that after a few growing seasons without crop diversity, the soil lost its nutrients and was no longer fertile.
It was interesting to experience a culture that only used natural resources instead of modern technology and machines. Even though most of the focus was on sustainable agricultural practices, as an engineer this trip opened my eyes to a few different ideas.
Firstly, I saw how engineering requires you to understand the people who you’re creating the product for in order for it to be successful. You have to understand their needs and values so you can use that context to create the best solution. Sustainable Harvest International needed to understand the farmers and culture of the communities in order to offer them the best training.
Secondly, I saw the impact that where and how you grow up has on the life you lead as an adult. Had I grown up in in a farming community in Belize I might be helping my family grow crops and practicing agricultural techniques instead of going to college in Boston and studying engineering. It’s extremely interesting to think about how values of a culture play such a huge role in an individual’s career path.
Lastly, this trip showed me that as an engineer, I can apply my problem-solving and critical thinking skills to pursue humanitarian work in communities similar to the ones in Belize to create new technologies and advancements.
All in all, Belize was an eye-opening experience and a nice change of pace from my math and science courses. Working alongside members of the community and staff at Sustainable Harvest International allowed me experience the culture in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I had the opportunity to interact with the community and listen to their stories, which allowed me to broaden my perspective. I highly recommend every engineer, and college student, take part in some kind of service trip!
Cassandra traveled to Belize as part of a partnership between Sustainable Harvest International and Northeastern University. You can come to the field with us, too! Find the details here.