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Environmental studies majors travel to Mexico to work with nonprofits

September 24, 2014
Alexis Hitzeroth

Alexis Hitzeroth

When it comes to sustainable technology, NIU students are learning that sometimes what’s old is new.

Alexis Hitzeroth and Ben Stone, both environmental studies majors, worked with two international nonprofit organizations, CATIS and Isla Mexico, for 19 days in Mexico this past summer to learn more about the methods employed there to address local environmental issues.

The two seniors told of their excitement about the ways that old and new technologies were combined to help on issues such as flooding, clean-water availability and urban gardening.

Isla Mexico, which tackles clean-water issues, works with the local population in and around Mexico City to provide systems for rainwater catchment in an effort to put a new spin on old technology.

“In Mexico, the local population does not have a lot of money and needs to find alternatives to more expensive technologies,” Hitzeroth said. “Isla Mexico’s goal is to find alternatives to expensive technologies that can be retrofitted to existing spaces. Rooftop rainwater catchment systems can be fixed by the homeowner and don’t require a lot of maintenance. They last a long time and can help people attain portable water for a variety of uses, such as cleaning and drinking.

“Talking to the people first is a big step that many people skip,” she added. “They assume that a society needs something without asking. By talking to the local people, you can actually meet their needs.”

Ben Stone

Ben Stone

Stone was impressed by another way that people in Mexico are tapping into history to provide for the local population. When adapting technologies, it’s important to experience and understand local culture, he said.

“For example, spirulina, a blue-green algae that was once harvested by the Aztecs, has been making a comeback to increasing one’s health,” Stone said. “One of the ancient spirulina gene lines was located and is now cultivated on CATIS ranch lands for sale to the local population and abroad.”

The NIU students also learned about biodigestors, first-flush systems and floating gardens called chinampas.

“This was one of the best summer school experiences in my whole life,” said Hitzeroth, who traveled extensively during her time in the military.

Stone is excited over the prospect of doing an internship next summer near Austin, Texas, where he would research the best construction uses for compressed earth blocks, which he learned about during this trip.

Both NIU students agree that traveling abroad provides important cultural perspectives necessary to understand before nonprofits can be effective in their work.

It’s important to bring this cultural knowledge home, especially for environmental issues, Stone said, because it helps ground solutions to actual situations.

The complete schedule of the students’ trip lists several of the technologies they learned about, along with links to learn more.