Inspired by issues of sustainability and education, one University student is spending his break transforming the lives of the residents of the Northern Pantanal region of Brazil.
With construction beginning this summer, LSA senior Ethan Shirley is spearheading the creation of the Pantanal Center for Education and Research on the Jaguar Ecological Reserve in Brazil. The center will feature classes for local children and adults, as well as a field station where University researchers and students will study sustainability and the surrounding environment.
The center also hosted a Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates Program field site and engaging the work of University engineering students in the Multi-Disciplinary Design Program.
In an e-mail interview with the Michigan Daily, Shirley wrote that he initially came to the Pantanal region in 2003 as a tourist and returned several times afterward to volunteer at an ecological resort.
With these visits, Shirley added that he was struck by the area’s need for a school, as the closest education center was over 90 miles away in the town of Poconé. Another ecologist had previously tried to start a school in the region, but Shirley wrote that the progress was inhibited by the locals’ dislike of the individual.
Shirley also wrote that he felt the Brazilian government had not initiated the construction of a school there due to laziness.
In the e-mail, Shirley wrote that he came up with the idea of creating a school combined with a field station, so that there would not be any concerns about the funding of the project. Under his model, the center will be funded by the fees researchers pay for access to the field station and other amenities, as well as by the fees that GIEU students pay to study there.
At the school, classes will be offered to children as well as illiterate adults, with the curriculum emphasizing the importance of conservation. Sustainability workshops will also be available for the general public.
With its focus on sustainability, the Pantanal Center will also feature a solar-powered system that will also be used as a tool for research on the effectiveness of renewable energy systems.
In addition, the center is promoting sustainability through a collaboration with the University’s Multidisciplinary Design Program, in which engineering students and professors are designing, building and testing sustainable energy and water systems for the center.
With the idea laid out, Shirley wrote that he hopes the center can help the region and further scientific study in the area.
“The goal of the center is to open doors for an isolated community through education and to provide a new means for scientific research to advance in the area,” he wrote.
As Shirley pitched his idea to co-founder and LSA senior Julie Bateman last summer, he wrote that they both vigilantly sought out funding for the school. Shirley added that they have since received a grant from the Davis Foundation, fellowships from the Ginsberg Center and other funding from the College of Engineering, the College of Architecture, LSA Honors and private donors.
Shirley also wrote that the construction of the school is being undertaken by Brazilian locals, GIEU students and himself to avoid any further bureaucratic delays.
Melissa Matice, a lecturer in the English Language Institute and the GIEU team faculty leader for the trip, wrote that she and 14 other students worked on the school by digging, doing masonry, mixing cement and working on whatever else the site needed.
Through the GIEU program, the students also gave English lessons to locals and conducted a census of the region, so that they can be registered with the state.
After returning from the program last week, LSA sophomore Elizabeth Ludwig said she learned a lot about the region and the locals’ need for a school through gathering data for the census.
Ludwig said she talked to many locals who either would not send their children to school or who were forced to pick only one or two of their children to attend school in Poconé — many of whom were unable to see their family for the majority of the year.
With the opening of the school, Ludwig said she believes many families will be reunited and will be able to maintain a better family dynamic.
As the construction progresses, Shirley wrote that the center should be completed by mid-August and the school will be open to students next April. But because the school will be overseen by the state government, there are still many governmental hurdles to overcome.
Looking toward the future, Shirley wrote that he is hopeful about the center’s impact on the Northern Pantanal community. Once any problems that might arise at the site are dealt with, Shirley wrote that he is considering taking his approach to other parts of the Pantanal region and possibly to Madagascar.