In Their Own Words: LEAP 2011 Sustainability Research in JAMAICA

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Building a compostable toilet, making a mud hut, creating vermiculture tubs and learning about organic farming are just a few of the things 22 freshmen who participated in “Sustainability Research in Jamaica” offered by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) got to do this summer.

As part of Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP) led by Neil Brown, Research Associate for The Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering, and Development in Africa (AESEDA), and Kimberly Del Bright, Giles Writer-in-Residence for EMS, students studied sustainability and communication on campus. They also traveled to Jamaica for 12 days where they were challenged to PLAN for sustainable living, DO projects that reflect sustainable solutions, LIVE in sustainable ways, and develop materials to SHARE their experiences.

The LEAP pride was introduced to four sustainability principles adapted from “The Natural Step Framework,” a comprehensive model that helps organizations integrate sustainable development into their strategic planning. Additionally, the students studied rhetoric and composition (English 15) to better understand and respond to arguments concerning sustainability. Evaluating the debates over environmental protection, economic development, and the costs to society were explored considering viewpoints of scientists, advisers, legislators, policy makers, reporters and others.

After four weeks of learning about sustainability and argument, students traveled to Jamaica for 12 days where they were challenged to PLAN for sustainable living, DO projects that reflect sustainable solutions, LIVE in sustainable ways, and develop material to SHARE their experiences.

Here’s what they had to say about their experiences:

The guys were instantly turned into twelve-year-olds [because of the lizards and the attempts to catch them]. We tried all day to catch these speed demons, but their deceptive tactics are directly comparable to that of a leprechaun. Soon, Saia, a worker at Durga’s Den showed us how to make lizard catchers out of the leaf of a tree. Then the fun began. We had catching competitions, bets, and lizard battles.
~Alex Strohl

We also hosted a toga party on [one of the evenings in Jamaica]. We invited all of our classmates and the teachers. We had a fantastic time dancing to the Backstreet Boys, Usher, and other random tunes, until we heard a knock on the door–it was Martha! She entered the room dressed in the finest sheets of them all. Martha went home with the prize of the night. She won “Best Overall” for her toga.
~Ashley Vargas

While in Jamaica, there were many locals who were obviously very different from us. It was fun to have conversations with them and learn their stories, but it was difficult to understand their language. The real Jamaican language is not nearly as easy to understand as the guys from Cool Runnings! Learning to deal with their crazy slang helped me become a better communicator. If I was not fully focused on what they were saying, I had no chance of interpreting their words…It made me more aware of the fact that not everyone understands what I say either.
~Kyle Will

One essay per week, many bug bites, and using a hole in the ground as a toilet, these words describe my summer at Penn State; to most the thought of even one of these things causes distress. However, I would not trade my LEAP experience for anything…Through my experience, I learned the value of the writing principles, teamwork, and awareness…and I will continue to apply these skills throughout my life.
~Jess Zaverukha

We learned to get along and work cohesively as a team. Catching lizards, rap battles, hours upon hours of “Would-You-Rather” games, and countless dance parties, all allowed us to bond, creating friendships that would follow us home to State College…I’ve learned that to succeed in college, independence, confidence, and self-motivation are key qualities. The initiatives I take to think ahead, plan, and take care of all tasks, big and small, are slowly but surely being fine-tuned.
~Megan Steward

My journals, specifically the ones comparing Jamaica to America, have taught me about different lenses…By constructing a résumé I have learned the importance of organization and how placement of key points can have a major impact on my reader.
~Connor Simpson

It is important to relate to your reader…For example, If I were writing to college students, trying to get them to stop drinking so much, I wouldn’t start with saying that they are all morons…Instead, I might start off by pointing out that I, too, am a college student, and I like to blow off steam at parties. I learned that by establishing common ground with the reader…the argument is more credible.
~Kaitrin Rodgers

I participated in many projects, including how to build mud huts, composting toilets, beds (which we actually slept on), vermiculture tubs, and how to farm organically. I learned about growing crops, how to prevent soil erosion, and how to re-use materials that in the U.S. we may think of as trash.
~Jillian Rodgers

My professors worked hard to create synergy between their course and challenged me with new things to think about…When Professor Bright would talk about how to make an argument, Dr. Brown would discuss how that relates to sustainability. Through this back and forth relating of the material, it was easy to see how they connected and reinforced what we learned…They [also] encouraged us to be life-long learners.
~Greg Ritson

[Future LEAPERS] I hope you have as much of a meaningful experience as I have had. Coming into this class I despised writing and reading, but through my experiences with both her [Professor Bright’s] class and Professor Brown’s class, I have learned to enjoy writing and have even become more accustom to reading. Without this class, I would still be filling my pages…like ants in a puddle of lemonade.
~Tim Osusky

At Durga’s Den, one of the activities I participated in was building a mud hut. This required a group of us to figure out how to work together in a team. In the building process, we had to take the bricks of mud made the day before, and stack them on the wall. At first, the six of us who were doing this worked individually, and we made little progress. Then we came together; we started working as a team…Working together as a group is much more exciting and makes the task more enjoyable.
~Stefan Moff

One of the main things focused on at Penn State is to make the experience of college your own. I want to set up a program through my college (Agricultural Sciences) and through Penn State, so that I can go to Haiti and study, furthering my education. I have witnessed the impact of learning through experience and the way it is more beneficial to me.
~Cara McDonald

To go from Senior Week to classes at Penn State, all in a matter of hours was nerve-wracking, but I had to remember what you always say Dad, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” At first, that elephant was hard to even look at, but now I can confidently say, that it tastes good. In other words, I’ve grown up a lot since I’ve been here. I’m no longer the nervous high school kid you dropped off who was aimless about what he was going to do for the next four years. I’m ready to command and conquer this place I now call home.
~Ryan McCaffrey

I just want to thank all of you [fellow LEAPERS] for making me feel like I am part of a family…I finally feel like a part of the Penn State Community. In a few short days, we will be ending summer session. After that, most of us will continue to East Halls, in the fall to go our separate ways pursuing our futures…I am grateful that my [Penn State] family started here with you.
~Nicole Marusco (a.k.a Grandma)

The average American child is instilled with the idea that contentment is equivalent to financial success: high-paying jobs, big houses, and abundant food. It is assumed that anyone who does not achieve this is unhappy…Spending time in [Jamaica] made me realize just how skewed my perception of the world really was. I found myself stuck by a new idea: sometimes it is those who have less in life that are the fortunate ones.

I will never forget my first visions of Jamaica. Watching out the windows of the crammed bus, I could not take my eyes off of the landscape which was washed in a bluish-grey from the tinted windows. Dilapidated shacks and half-built houses stood in stark contrast to the handful of mansions and resorts that dotted the mountainside. The roads were filled with old vehicles: mostly vans and trucks filled to overflowing with Jamaicans. Stray dogs ambled along the side of the streets looking for food. This was not the tourist destination that I had imagined.

One of the most memorable evenings of the trip occurred when a group of fisherman cooked us dinner on the beach. Herbie taught us about the different components of the meal. He stood in front of us in the shabby, dirt-stained clothes he had worn all week; half of his teeth were missing. He showed no shame. Instead, he seemed honored to have the opportunity to bestow his knowledge upon us.

Whenever I get caught up in the hectic pace of the United States, I will take a moment to think back to my time in Jamaica and what the people there taught me: happiness is not measured in monetary wealth but in our level of contentment with what we have.
~Molly Cain

Here’s a student-made YouTube video of their experience.

If you’d like to learn more, contact me at, or Neil Brown at

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