Camacho (far left) and Chavez (far right) said many Cusco residents use the stoves installed by Cal Poly students years ago. | Jim Keese/Courtesy Photo

Lindsy Mobley
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Cal Poly’s Learn By Doing philosophy stretches farther than just the San Luis Obispo campus. Every summer, it’s practiced by students in Peru.

A Cal Poly study abroad program sends approximately 25 students to Peru every summer to take classes and partake in community-based volunteer work in Indigenous communities around the city Cusco.

“Part of that is installing clean-burning or improved stoves that have chimneys that go out and burn fuel more efficiently,” geography professor Jim Keese said. “Cal Poly has been installing these stoves every summer for eight years, but we wanted to know do they work, do people actually use them and do they continue to use them.”

Approximately 3 billion people still rely on traditional wood-burning stoves in their homes. This can result in indoor air pollution, which can cause respiratory and eye problems and is known to especially affect women and children.

Approximately 2 million households in Peru use wood-burning stoves, Keese said. The stoves often don’t burn wood efficiently, which creates deforestation problems.

For this reason, Cal Poly students are installing improved stoves for families in these Indigenous communities.

Keese wanted to find out if their efforts had a lasting impact. He took a two-quarter sabbatical to do a followup study on the clean-burning stoves. He recruited anthropology and geography junior Alex Camacho and political science sophomore Aurora Chavez to participate in the research this past March.

“I went down for three weeks; they went down for two weeks,” Keese said. “We collected data from 43 households in three communities, communities students had installed stoves in for the past four years using a household survey.”

Their data was collected through a survey that focused on different aspects of the stove and to see if the families were using them, what they liked about it and if it fit their cultural context. They also collected data on demographics, but aren’t sure if they are going to use it for the study, Camacho said.

Keese said they also looked at fuel savings and perception of health impacts.

“We were expecting that maybe the stoves weren’t going to be used and that the work from Cal Poly students wasn’t having a big impact,” Keese said. “But we got out there and saw that the stoves actually do work as expected and the people really were using them and really liked them, which was very rewarding.”

According to Chavez, they found “exciting” results. There was a 70 percent adoption rate of the stoves.

“We found that the stove is very effective and that it cooks all the foods that they cook, uses all the fuel that they use, and it also removes smoke from the household, and there was widespread acknowledgement that smoke was bad for your health,” Keese said. “So it’s meeting a need that people clearly need and want.”

Camacho and Chavez presented the results at the annual California Geographical Society meeting at Humboldt State University approximately three weeks ago, Keese said.

The California Geographical Society represents geographers, professionals, faculty and students in California. There were approximately 300 participants at the academic conference, he said.

Camacho said the conference was a good experience because they got to see a lot of other undergraduate students presenting their research as well. It helped open her eyes to the possibilities of what she can do with her major, she said.

“The research we did, it wasn’t like a literature review where we were looking at someone else’s numbers,” Camacho said.

Camacho had also gone on the four-week study abroad program. It was interesting for her to go back and see the impact her work had on the communities. She enjoyed getting to know the families directly, she said.

Chavez enjoyed the Learn By Doing component because she got to see things she learned in class proved out in real life, she said.

“I’m a political science student; I never imagined myself doing research like this,” Chavez said. “It was just really exciting for me because just the nature of my major is not Learn By Doing at all, and I know that’s Cal Poly’s motto. But this really was Learn By Doing. It was just such a great opportunity to experience everything I’ve learned in class out in the field.”

Keese is proud of the work Camacho and Chavez did, he said. He plans to continue to do further research in this area.

“The work they did was really graduate-level research,” Keese said. “They did literature review, they developed a survey, administered the survey, processed the results and presented the results at a professional conference. And now we’re in the process of writing a journal article to actually publish the results.”

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