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Calculus and coffee

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By Stephen Geffre

Fog-covered mountains, roosters crowing at 4 a.m., dinner by candlelight, 60-foot waterfalls, and calculus. Strange components in a college class, maybe, but for seven students and two faculty members, this was reality during the 2012 spring break.

In the course MAT 496: The Calculus of Sustainability, students spent the first eight weeks of the spring semester studying coffee plantations of Nicaragua. With this knowledge, they created projects ranging from calculating the carbon footprint of coffee production to building a largescale

differential equation model that would be used while in Nicaragua.

Once in-country, students were asked by the farm families with whom they stayed for feedback and advice on an ecotourism model the farmers were creating. The farmers, all members of the GARBO coffee cooperative in the Peñas Blancas region of Nicaragua near the Honduran border, were exploring diversifying their income by inviting tourists to learn about and stay on the plantation.

So although they had prepared projects for months before arriving in Nicaragua, the students set them aside and put the needs of the farmers in the forefront. The class came up with ideas like creating a map of the cooperative and installing a water filtration system. They also suggested paving the roads and creating a store to sell convenience items to tourists as well as products grown on the plantation.

When all was said and done, the students learned that when working in a place like Nicaragua, plans can change quickly. Adaptation and the willingness to think on your feet are great skills to have when trying to apply complex mathematics in a real-world situation.

In the end, the challenge for Augsburg College—and every higher education institution—is to find a sustainable balance among these factors—state and federal government aid, institutional support, and student or family contributions—in a way that keeps higher education within reach for students of academic ability from all backgrounds.

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