Ariel shot of large group of young people standing in small grassy area
Photo Credit: Jonathan Castro, IICA FabLab

Expanding the Orbit of Climate Action: Youth Geospatial Leadership in Central America

By Lena Pransky

In 1992, NASA Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz waved to throngs of fans at a homecoming parade in Costa Rica to celebrate his historic representation as the first Latino to travel to space. Peering out from the crowd was a young Luis Diego Monge. Seeing a fellow Costa Rican representing NASA, Luis Diego decided that he too would pursue a space-related career. To this day, he keeps a photo from that parade with him as a reminder of this life-defining moment.

Years later, Luis Diego not only achieved his goal of working in space technology, but he became a colleague of astronaut Chang-Diaz. Now, with the support of SERVIR, a joint initiative of NASA and USAID, Luis Diego works to share geospatial tools with other young people in Central America to help them to pursue their own dreams beyond the stratosphere.

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Young person holding up phone with photo on it
Luis Diego and his picture of Chang-Díaz’s visit.

Strengthening Central America’s geospatial capacity

Luis Diego is part of the Central American Aerospace Network (RAC in Spanish). In 2018, he supported the launch of the kickstarter-funded Irazú satellite in Costa Rica, the first satellite from Central America. He later collaborated with RAC President María José Molina on Morazán, Honduras’ first satellite, created in partnership with Costa Rica and Guatemala to support flood warning systems in the region.

These missions support RAC’s goal of strengthening regional geospatial capacity and leadership. RAC focuses on communities in Central America with historically limited access to geospatial technology, including youth, women, and rural and Indigenous communities. Since 2019, RAC has trained over 700 women and youth in geospatial technology through a workshop called GeoFem (Rally Femenino in Spanish).

By partnering with organizations like RAC, SERVIR can ensure that NASA Earth data gets into the hands of communities and decision-makers who have the best understanding of regional issues and how to use geospatial tools for climate action.

SERVIR recently collaborated with RAC to lead the Jóvenes Geoespaciales (“Geospatial Youth”) workshop for 45 young students in San Miguel, El Salvador. The students joined from Gerardo Barrios University and USAID-funded programs Supérate and Oportunidades.* These programs support talented youth from economically disadvantaged parts of the country.

Luis Diego kicked off the workshop by showing students his picture of Chang-Diaz’s visit. Much to the students’ amazement, he then opened a box to reveal a small “CubeSat” satellite, and proceeded to use walkie-talkie radio transmitters to capture satellite data from inside the room. The students’ geospatial journey had begun.

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The CubeSat satellite that Luis Diego brought to the student workshop. This is the same type of satellite as Irazú, which he helped to launch.

In just three days, the Jóvenes Geoespaciales students used NASA Earth data and open access tools like Google Earth Engine to create their own projects for local climate resilience, including maps for monitoring crop health, wildfires, and deforestation. Click here to learn more about these projects.

Youth as climate leaders

Many of the Jóvenes Geoespaciales students live in rural areas or on farms that are affected by climate issues, and plan to apply what they learned to support their family and community.

One student, Sandra Ventura, is from the rural agricultural district of Morazán. Over the past few years, she has noticed increasing drought, deforestation, and agricultural losses in her community. Sandra was motivated to see that her observations were reflected in maps that she created in Google Earth Engine, which showed a decrease in local vegetation over the last decade. Now, she wants to use this information to support reforestation initiatives.

Sandra emphasized that young people, especially in rural areas, can share new technologies with their families to become advocates for change. 

“We are the ones who can bring this information home– in agriculture, it is our parents who are in contact with the land. We young people need this type of climate information so we can share it within our community and translate it into action,” Sandra explained. “I want to be a bridge of innovation.”

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Youth with NASA badge around her neck standing with hands crossed in front of them
Sandra Ventura.

The value of regional role models

Just as Luis Diego had the opportunity to meet the first NASA astronaut from Costa Rica in 1992, the Jóvenes Geoespaciales workshop coincided with a visit from Colonel Frank Rubio, the first NASA astronaut of Salvadoran descent. The students presented their projects and showed Rubio that the next generation of Salvadorans is already following in his footsteps.

Even after meeting a NASA Astronaut, students expressed how inspired they were by Luis Diego, María José, and the rest of the RAC team. Learning from fellow Central Americans showed students that they could also become scientific leaders– many even commented that they wanted to launch the first satellite from El Salvador. 

It would be an incredible asset for our small country to have its own satellite. But more than anything, it would show other young people that we can all achieve our dreams and accomplish things that we thought were out of our orbit.

Student Diego Solis

The Jóvenes Geoespaciales workshop built off of the success of a 2023 GeoFem workshop in Costa Rica, where SERVIR collaborated with RAC to train 100 women and girls in geospatial technology. 

*The Supérate and Oportunidades programs are also funded by the Sagrera Palomo Foundation and the Gloria Kriete Foundation, respectively.


This blog was originally published by SERVIR

Projects
SERVIR
Strategic Objective
Mitigation
Topics
Digital technology, Gender and Social Inclusion, Training, Weather, Youth
Region
Latin America & Caribbean

Lena Pransky

Lena Pransky is the Science Communications Associate for the NASA/USAID SERVIR Science Coordination Office in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a Master’s degree in International Agricultural Development with a certification in Agricultural Extension from the University of California, Davis. She has worked in both the United States and Latin America on projects related to migration, agroecology, food security, and gender equity.

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