Through the Earth Institute’s Travel Grant program, students have the opportunity to spend their spring breaks producing original research in locations from upstate New York to Ecuador. While pursuing their degree studies at Columbia University, students are eligible to receive monetary support in the form of travel grants from the Earth Institute for research projects dealing with issues of sustainable development and environmental protection.
Ecuador has been the focus of Sarah Chien, a Barnard College senior studying sociology, for some time. Last summer, Sarah spent two months working with Yachana Technical High School, a boarding school with a special focus on ecotourism in the Amazon region of Ecuador. With the help of a travel grant, Sarah used her spring break to return to Ecuador to gain more knowledge and insight about sustainable education in the Amazon. The school and its model of sustainable development became the subject of Sarah’s senior thesis.
Sarah explains, “The adaptation of development processes and ideologies by young people at Yachana High School is a creative and personally specific process that involves varied ways of consuming, reinterpreting and applying development ideas to one’s own life. The students’ voices offer a much-needed return to the practical and personal implications of the policies and theories debated within the discourse of sustainable development.” Funding from the Earth Institute Travel Grant program allowed Sarah to spend her spring break back at the school, finalizing her research, conducting interviews and synthesizing her findings for her senior thesis.
The unique high school at the center of Sarah’s senior thesis is part of the Yachana Foundation´s regional development project to conserve Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest and improve the lives of its people. The Yachana Foundation also includes a health clinic and a research station, in addition to the technical high school that grants its graduates a degree in ecotourism and sustainable development. The foundation operates on the philosophy that the only way to preserve natural resources is to train youth to be creative leaders who can then generate local alternatives to current destructive trends.
As a student of sociology, Sarah Chien is interested in the social dynamics of sustainable development. She found that the high school students, in addition to being actors of sustainable development themselves, “were fascinated by sociology (‘you can make a career out [of] understanding the worlds of each person?’) and by the idea that research is being done worldwide on development projects not unlike the one of which they are a part.”
In her research, she seeks to evaluate whether the foundation’s idealistic discourse masks the realities of the projects that were founded on those ideals. Sarah’s field research analysis revolves around the ways the ideals of sustainable development are understood by the high school students. To answer her research questions, Sarah has conducted ethnographic field research through intensive participant observation at the school, collected field notes and taped interviews. Through the Travel Grant program, Sarah has been able to bring her research and her senior thesis to completion.