Guateca Intercultural Appropriate Technology Field School, Guatemala


Guateca, a two month summer experience in San Pablo (pop ~1000), near the northern boarder of central Guatemala at an elevation of about 10,000′ was founded on the idea that Cal Poly students and Guatemalan villagers could come together in an atmosphere of mutual learning and enrichment. The program involved 38 Cal Poly students and more than 8 non-student volunteers from San Luis Obispo as well as about 37 Guatemalan college-age students (some in college), about 10 host families in San Pablo, and the entire community of San Pablo. The program grew out of Pete Schwartz‘s Appropriate Technology classes at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and consisted of three different trips:

  • 2010 winter break: 12 Cal Poly students and ~12 students from San Pablo shared culture and life in San Pablo.
  • Summer of 2011, 8 weeks in San Pablo for 15 Cal Poly students and about 15 local students, student video 1, student video 2
  • Summer of 2012, 8 weeks in San Pablo for 9 Cal Poly students and about 9 local students, student website


During the two summer stays, enrolled Cal Poly students received credit for three classes: Spanish (through Cal Poly Modern Languages), Energy Society and the Environment (PSC-320 or PHYS-391), and Appropriate Technology.
The 2010 trip visited Atitlan before staying in San Pablo, and the 2012 trip also visited Atitlan for a weekend. In 2011, we visited the pyramids in Tikal. The program has been highlighted in the American Physical Society

2011 Guateca Students form a “G” on the steps of a pyramid in Tikal



2010 participants celebrate friendship at Lake Atitlan



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Celebrating the birthday of a host mother (2012, left). Cal Poly triumphs over the San Pablo in the opening game of the annual tournament in San Pablo (2011, right). We were crushed in the second round.



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Classes took place on the second floor of an adobe house under construction, that also served as a shop for appropriate technology classes (2012, left). We summit Tacana in 2011, Central America’s second highest mountain at 13,320′.



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In 2012, students designed and constructed lifted windows that also served as benches (left). These windows brought light into the kitchen beneath, as shown in the picture below, right. The room below was also fitted with natural insulation by the 2012 Guateca students, demonstrating how homes can be kept warm.



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In 2012, students designed (left), and constructed a rocket stove / mass heater. At far left, wood is inserted and the fire burns downward, the hot exhaust travels up the heat riser and under the “plancha” where the food is cooked. Passage through the heat riser both completes the combustion process as well as creates a strong stack effect to drive the cooler air after the plancha downward to heat the bench made of ~ 1 ton of adobe. At right, the portion in a red circle is that which is modeled at left. At far right is the exhaust pipe upward. The room is nicely lit from the lifted windows above (see above figure) and the insulated (blue) shutters are visible in the middle of the room. Between the insulation and the heated adobe, a small fire in the evening would result in the room still being warm in the morning – something unheard of in the village.



The Program Failure
In the course of two years, I allowed conflict to grow between myself and a few people from some of the stakeholder groups: students, volunteers, coworkers, faculty, and staff from Cal Poly and/or Guatemala. Cal Poly halted Guateca in 2012 after student complaints and allowed me to restructure the program consistent with the new International Programs requirements. In 2014, the nonprofit in San Pablo ended Guateca for reasons that likely include constraints associated with the restructuring as well as mixed feelings about me. Potentially, my shortcoming was to have a clear vision of what the program should become, and I worked very hard to make it happen. While this may well be the signature of a successful project leader to many of us, for Guateca it was not. If I were to do it again, I would not have a clear idea, but rather learn from others and let the ideas emerge from community engagement. Also, I would work less, in order to have time and energy to engage socially. Additionally, the extra work I did resulted in me feeling attached to outcomes that I might have otherwise let go. All stakeholders: Guatemalan and Cal Poly students, staff, and volunteers found the program to be of great value, but everyone looked to me to make it happen. Guateca could have been a collaborative project that was the responsibility of every participating stakeholder, but it was not clear to me until recently how I missed that opportunity.



The Celebration and Legacy of Guateca
It’s important to distinguish evaluations of me personally from evaluations of Guateca. While a minority of stakeholders were annoyed with me, the program was universally lauded. As an illustration, the most critical student evaluation from 2012 stated, “The experience was so amazing but my experience with Pete made it almost not worth it.” Again, this was the most critical student. Most of the students have expressed and continue to express gratitude for a life-changing experience.


Besides the 38 Cal Poly students and about 8 volunteers, roughly an equal number of Guatemalan students, many families, and the entire community benefitted from the experience. Many students (both from Cal Poly and San Pablo) have kept in touch with me and I have visited San Pablo twice since summer 2012. Cal Poly participants have returned to San Pablo for extended periods of time teaching English and energy innovation in the San Pablo secondary school. A Guateca graduate from San Pablo, who was passionate about energy presently teaches this subject in the community’s secondary school. Certainly, everyone involved with Guateca has found value from the experience.



Academic Achievement
Cal Poly students taking the final exam for PSC-320, Energy, Society, and the Environment, in the Guateca program did significantly(about a letter grade) better on the final exam than did students in my standard classes at Cal Poly. In my opinion, there are too many differences between the conditions to make a concrete scientific claim as to the cause of the improved learing. However it is clear that Cal Poly students in the Guateca program learned the material significantly better than did students in San Luis Obispo. I attribute this difference to the supportive student community that exists during the intense cultural experience, although other factors may have also played a role such as lack of access to a job, a car, or a house party.



A Challenging Undertaking
In December 2010 when I told Nanine (Chemist, Dean, Impressive human) that I was taking 12 Cal Poly students to Guatemala for two weeks to study with 12 Guatemalan students, she responded, “You’re very brave.”  I didn’t ask her if “brave” meant “stupid”, but responded that this wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Her words came back to me as challenges arose in the complex interplay of culture, responsibility, and politics at all scales (internationally, Guatemalan, village, family, and among the students). Knowing what I know now, I could engage in such a program much better and possibly make it work. In any case, I move on with this knowledge to be a better collaborator in future activities. It is hard not to call a program a success that brought value to all participants. However, I also want to hang on to the failure of the program as well, that I may remember the hard lessons I learned about nurturing a program of people.