Theanne N. Schiros FDGA 2016

Pathways to practical, scalable systems for sustainable development

Finca Morpho Permaculture Farm, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

This January 2016 I traveled to Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica during January of 2016 to explore permaculture farming and the design of zero waste communities and participate in instruction, design, and building of sustainable architectures/dwellings and agriculture systems. Project-based instruction and demonstration of these strategies on the permaculture farm greatly expanded my knowledge about challenges, limitations and scalability issues in practical applications and facilitated pathways to appropriate solutions based on local resources and needs.

The practicum involved project-based knowledge transfer in:

  • Permaculture: aquaponics, black soldier fly, husbandry, biodynamic farming
  • Sustainable energy systems
    • Biowaste to biogas and fertilizer (see: “zero waste living”)
  • Zero waste living
    • Reuse of all plastic, e.g. as building materials when mixed with adobe.
    • Do it yourself (DIY) products based on organic, locally sourced materials
  • Teaching: workshops on practical, scalable pathways to sustainability, and the biogeochemical cycles at work in the permaculture initiatives.

This project involved extensive knowledge transfer including teaching contributions to the community on the farm and hands on learning outcomes of living and working on the farm. My contributions involved teaching and demonstrations on: soil chemistry and compost testing; renewable energy conversion technologies; and materials for next generation electronics (2-D van der Waals materials and heterostructures) and next generation fabric (grown from kombucha bacteria culture and yeast and dyed with natural pigments grown on the farm).

I learned a great deal about maintaining a zero-waste community via sustainable building structures based on non-recycleable plastic bricks and or bamboo mixed with adobe made from mud, sand and clay on the farm, as well as practical applications and successes of implementing permaculture principles, including different strategies for composting different forms of bio-matter, from black soldier fly larvae to production of biochar and enhancement of the soil the farm, located on mostly sandy terrain at the edge of the ocean. By converting agricultural waste into a powerful soil enhancer that holds carbon and makes soils more fertile, Finca Morpho is boosting food production and security, limiting deforestation and preserving cropland diversity. In teaching with senior faculty member Prof. Karen Pearson, we discussed and demonstrated (with simple experiments) the science behind the benefits of biochar including:

  • Reduced leaching of nitrogen into ground water
  • Possible reduced emissions of nitrous oxide
  • Increased cation-exchange capacity resulting in improved soil fertility
  • Moderating of soil acidity
  • Increased water retention
  • Increased number of beneficial soil microbes

This project-based knowledge transfer on sustainable energy conversion and food production was inspiration only to my research on solar energy conversion and storage (artificial photosynthesis), and interest in connecting these investigations to real world applications. The experience also supported my commitment to educational outreach, particularly with regard to underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Beyond this, my experience at Finca Morpho stimulated innovative approaches to my current teaching of the “science of sustainability” through the biogeochemical cycles and human disturbances to them through fossil fuel use and industrial agriculture (monoculture). It was highly education and inspirational also in my role as a faculty advisor to the biodesign challenge at FIT). I leveraged this experience with growing fabrics from SCOBY (symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria) cultures using tea, sugar and apple cider vinegar and natural dye methods to advise F.I.T. student team “Bioesters” in the 2016 Biodesign Challenge. We created biopolymers from microbial grown cellulose, algae and chitin and knit and laser cut the fabric and biopolymer filaments into functional and flexible form factors. We also calculated the carbon and water footprints of these materials relative to cotton and polyester and showed that these materials we fabricated have a dramatically lower environmental footprint than conventional textiles based on agricultural and petroleum-based polymers. Our team won the F.I.T. competition and are going on to compete in the National Competition at the MoMA on June 23, with an extended exhibition at the School of Visual Arts.

This experience strongly enriched my teaching program in chemistry and the physical sciences by showing footage and first hand interaction with small-scale solutions to global challenges. Participation in instruction, design, and building of sustainable energy and agriculture systems on the farm directly enabled me to share this perspective and learn about potential challenges, limitations and scalability issues in practical applications. It also provided a platform to connect with the Natural Dye Garden and Muslim Compost teams at FIT. In fact, I’m excited to share that my chemistry class next emester will do hands on soil testing of the compost here at F.I.T. to test whether the soil has low enough concentrations of potential toxins to be used to grow food, or simply natural dyes and other plants at this juncture. We will extend this investigation to explore the chemical composition of compost, which includes conventional textiles and dyes. Investigation of the potential toxicity of dyes used in “fast fashion” products will certainly have an impact on our students and help identify opportunities for sustainability in the production and consumption of textiles, from raw materials to end of life.

Collaboration with senior faculty member Professor Karen Pearson at Finca Morpho facilitated and supported coupling between research and sustainable development and project-based learning. It also strengthened and expanded a shared vision of the role of science, presented in an accessible framework, as central to teaching sustainability to FIT students of all majors. This is, in fact, a cornerstone of continued knowledge transfer in this project. An important outcome will to be define directions and create instructional materials to give students tools to address the greatest challenge of our century: development of sustainable pathways to providing food, energy and water for the 7-9 billion people sharing the resources of our planet.