It all begins at the beginning of the school year with the question, “Should I take some of my summertime and chaperone students on a ecology conservation trip next summer?” Really I don’t have to think too hard to answer that question because I already know that it is incredibly fulfilling to be part of an exploration service-learning trip with students. Then, the decision must be made as to which organization to choose. Research and experience lead me to settle with Ecology Project International (EPI- click here to look at their site)
Announcements, posters, and parent evenings follow. Sign-ups, emails, and reminders continue. There is more interest than expected so another chaperone, my dear friend and colleague, Eva, is added to the group. Coordination with EPI is paramount. As our date approaches we schedule another parent meeting and review the packing list and the anticipated schedule. It’s real! We’re heading to Costa Rica for a leatherback turtle ecology experience.
June 28 is our departure date. Parents, students, and teachers meet with giddy excitement at the red and white cube in Schiphol airport. The 14- hour journey to San Jose, Costa Rica is relatively smooth and we meet up with our EPI guide, David. Later we are joined by Stanley, who the students affectionately nick-name “Sally” due to an initial misunderstanding of David’s pronunciation of the name.
The first item on the agenda is to surrender all electronics, teachers included. Students reluctantly hand in their devices, not sure if they’ll be able to survive without them
In addition to some sites near San Jose (Poaz volcano and the Turrialba Botanic Garden) our adventure includes time at the La Suerte Rainforest Reserve. The students are introduced to issues of sustainability, Costa Rican Ecology, and carrying out proper scientific investigations (descriptive, comparative, and correlative). They begin individual research on a specific species and plan descriptive investigations. Juxtaposed to these activities are hikes in the rainforest and lectures by scientists working in the field at La Suerte.
We are constantly serenaded by the cicadas. Presentations are interrupted in order to observe a mother sloth with infant traversing the trees flanking our camp or to snatch a peek at a woodpecker at work behind us or to watch a lizard passing through. Monkeys are seen jumping through the trees and their vocalizations ring out throughout the forest. The multiple and diverse noises of the rainforest fluctuate all day and penetrate into the night.
The students are enjoying and reflecting on the wonder of earth on a daily basis. “Wait a minute, look at this!” or “What is that?” are common outbursts coupled with “That is so cool” or “Amazing”. They appreciate the lush vegetation that surrounds them and the important ecosystems that it holds. They recognize the need to preserve these parts of our world if humanity is to continue to exist.
The students are becoming aware of reducing food waste and the need to save fresh water. The cumulative left-over food on their plates is dropping drastically and they are learning the art of the 2-minute (or less) shower. They spontaneously offer reflection on how amazing it would be if the entire world were to become so acutely aware of the need to conserve. They discuss how they would like to incorporate these changes in their lives back home. They evaluate practices of companies in Costa Rica, such as the banana and pineapple plantations and determine to be more selective in finding companies that practice sustainability when making future purchases.
The students are both enthralled and slightly appalled by a scientist’s lecture on his research into the homing patterns of the whipspider at La Suerte. He describes the capture of and the insertion of the GPS device onto the spider, the spider’s movements, and the different experimental approaches taken with the spiders. In fact the mention of the spider’s speed and danger deters three students from joining us on the night hike! It’s just too creepy for them. However, they appreciate that his studies lead to understandings and advancements in the real world, including the field of bionics. The primatologist on site gives great insight into her experience as a field scientist that began with studies of the vocalization patterns of Lemurs in Madagascar. She is at La Suerte leading primate field school studies for university students. On our hikes we have run into the student groups observing and collecting data on the howler monkeys, the white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the spider monkeys.
Our students are easily identifying heliconia species, ferns, epiphytes, strangler fig trees and more! They spot the red as well as the black and green poison dart frogs regularly. A pause to observe the leaf cutter ants is frequent. Anticipation of lizard and snake sightings is high. Unusual spiders, lizards, and creatures of all sorts result in squeals of delight and intrigue. Not only does each hike in the rainforest yield amazing sightings but our walks to and from the main cabin are equally interesting!
Before we leave La Suerte the students finish and report on their descriptive studies. As they observe they are intent on their work, fully engaged in discovery. Here are the topics they chose:
- What is the average number of coconuts on the tress in the La Suerte camp area?
- What is the typical shape of the leaves cut by the leaf cutter ants at the La Suerte camp site?
- What is the average number of mosquito bites obtained by members of our group thus far on the trip?
- What is the average number of veins on the leaves of the Aphelandra scraba plant (and is there a correlation to leaf size) at the edge of our La Suerte campsite.
- How many poison dart frog sightings are there during our walks to and from the main cabin?
- How many centipedes can be found on the walkways around our camp?
At the end of PART ONE of our trip, my colleague, Eva and I are pleased with what has been gained thus far. A noticeable change amongst the students has evolved: discussions, playing games, and interacting. The absence of electronic devices is a gift and a major feature of allowing students to fully engage themselves in this experience. The immersion in the rain forest is incredible. Students are duly awed, as are we, at the magnificent diversity found on earth. Awareness of the connection between humans and earth is heightened. Personal habits are being evaluated. The idea of sustainable living is beginning to form. At our last night at La Suarte we happily fall asleep to the chirps, tweets, and calls of the jungle outside our cabin as we anticipate the leatherback turtle ecology portion of our trip.
NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO