Undergrads see ‘green’ fix for hunger in Brazil
AP photo by Victor R. Caivan
A cyclist rides along a dirt road at Cidade de Deus under a tangle of electrical cables in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The neighborhood is one of many favelas, or impoverished neighborhoods, in Rio.
Five Temple undergraduates will enter the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro this winter break with an unusual plan to grow crops for Brazil’s neediest residents by farming on their rooftops.
Using this technique, known as green roof technology, the students hope to compensate for severe farmland shortages.The population density is so high in Rio’s favelas (shantytowns) that, in many areas, there is no discernible space between one home and the next.
Green roofing is popular in Europe for its environmental benefit, where many businesses and property owners grow plants atop city buildings. In a first, Temple students hope to demonstrate that the technology can also provide sustenance for the poor, thereby proving that green roofing has uses well beyond its ecological effects.
“We want to make this idea work,” said project leader Josh Meyer, a senior environmental studies and chemistry major in the University Honors Program. “It hasn’t really been done before, but the payoff could be huge. If we’re successful, this project could help thousands of people and ultimately be adopted by the Brazilian government.”
The students will use sophisticated technologies such as hydroponics to nurture the plants. Meyer anticipates that their main challenge will be transferring water from stores on the ground to the rooftops, because the dilapidated shanties that the students will work on cannot support the added weight of holding tanks.
“These people are very poor, so they don’t have money for expensive materials,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to transfer the water that’s cost-effective and energy-efficient. It might be siphon tubes, capillary action, attaching a pump using an old bicycle — or something as simple as lifting the water up from a holding tank.
“The point is to teach people to use recycled goods and live off the land even when they don’t have the space to do so,” he added.
Meyer and his peers believe the project stands as the ultimate extension of their work in Temple’s classrooms and laboratories.
“A project like this will test us more than any quiz or final exam could, because the problems are real,” said Meyer, who has led tree-planting campaigns in one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods.
“If we mix the chemicals wrong, the plants will die,” he added. “If we don’t transfer the water correctly, the project will fail. This is the ultimate test.”
Temple’s group will partner with Viva Rio, a Brazilian non-governmental organization whose signature issue has been curbing gun violence.
Unlike many organizational service trips sponsored by humanitarian groups, the Temple students’ project is of their own making. Meyer traveled to Brazil last summer on a federal Udall Scholarship and sold Viva Rio management on his green roofing plan.
In addition to helping the needy, the students hope the project speaks to the viability of the sustainability movement, a campaign that has taken root on many college campuses by linking environmental, social and economic concerns.
For that reason, Fernando Regencio, a film major, will join them to produce a documentary to showcase their research and raise awareness of sustainability issues.
“We’re taking five students in different fields and showing how, with very little effort and just by reaching across majors, we’re able to have a major impact using what we learned at Temple,” Meyer said. “The technology exists to be able to help these people, so why not use it?”
Joining Meyer and Regencio in Rio’s favelas will be Pasma Apehaya, an engineering major in University Honors; Joseph Lulis, an architecture major in the Tyler School of Art; and Elizabeth Vecchione, a landscape architecture major at the Ambler Campus.
Inspired by the promise of the Rio trip, Temple’s administration is acting to further encourage undergraduate research. The Provost’s Office will soon dedicate $5,000 to fund student projects on a quarterly basis, on the condition that the student’s academic department pays half the cost.
“My hope is that these students [traveling to Rio] will be beacons to the rest of the student body,” said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Peter Jones. “I know we don’t have just five students of this caliber at Temple. I’m convinced there are hundreds. All of our students have this potential, and this fund is a way to uncover it.”
Since he became a vice provost at the start of the academic year, Jones has championed cross-disciplinary collaboration and experiential learning, two ideals embodied by the Rio trip.
“This project is representative of exactly what should occur at a university: Students came together over an idea and became intellectually energized by it,” he said. “It also fits into where Temple is going, with an emphasis on experiential, research-based learning. Collaboration like this simulates what research is like in the real world. Rarely do you get to be the lone researcher on a project.”
Stressing that the trip would have been impossible without their support, Jones noted that faculty and academic deans have embraced expanding undergraduate research opportunities. Within an hour of sending an e-mail about the project, he said, he had commitments from each student’s dean to pay half the cost of the trip.
Jones and University Honors director Ruth Ost also convened a faculty panel to assess the academic integrity of the students’ proposal, which the panel endorsed.
— Ted Boscia