Piranhas and polymers: Students take materials science and ethics course in Colombia

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, Students

Behind every rubber product is a story that begins deep in the Amazon near a small city called Leticia at the southernmost tip of Colombia. In the early 20th century, 90 percent of the world’s rubber came from this region, at the cost of millions of indigenous peoples’ lives and significant rainforest destruction.

Though Leticia is now a community committed to protecting the Amazon and the rubber industry has changed drastically, the story still serves as a cautionary tale about the quest for raw materials.

Tim Osswald

Tim Osswald

The subject is powerful as is; however a group of UW-Madison students had the chance to study the ethics of rubber and other polymers while listening to Amazonian animals howl nearby. In early July 2010, 12 UW-Madison engineering students, joined by three students from Winona State University, traveled to Colombia for a weeklong course led by Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tim Osswald. Twenty-five students and five faculty members from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, also participated.

Osswald has taught Materials Science of Polymers for Engineers at UW-Madison and in Bogotá several times, and last year he was asked to lead the course at the Colombian university’s new Amazon campus and encourage foreign students to attend.

The course kept participants busy with seminars held through the day and evening. However, there were plenty of opportunities for students to explore Colombian culture. The group traveled 100 miles up the Amazon River by boat and met members of the tribe of the Caguas, whose population was decimated by the rubber trade. Students sampled Colombian cuisine, including piranha and giant worms. They also played plenty of soccer and ran five miles to the Brazilian border.

Overall, the experience gave students a chance to make personal connections with Colombian people and the Amazon environment. “Rubber was the first polymer used industrially, and it shows that when we are seeking more and more raw materials, some lose perspective,” Osswald says. “As engineers, there is so much we can do that can be good or can do damage, and especially with polymers, we have to keep perspective.”

The students got the message. “A lot of what we learn in class is equations, and we don’t look at where a material comes from and its effect on the people harvesting that material,” says mechanical engineering student Tyler Spriggs. “Professor Osswald really focused on the effects all the way through a material’s life cycle. It gave us a different perspective to see how the industry affects the environment, in particular,” he says. “I wouldn’t have quite gotten the image in my head if I hadn’t done this course in Leticia.”

The course was such a success that Osswald will continue to teach it in Colombia, alternating summers between the Bogotá and Leticia campuses.

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