Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

Heads tip in wonder and discovery. Voices rise in heated debate over issues of sustainability. Fingers point and cries of excitement are uttered. Hushed awe. Quiet reflection is offered about humankind’s stewardship of earth. Friendships develop over nonelectronic games, shared experiences, and coping with humidity and insects. “Let’s save the world optimism” bubbles out of teenage minds and mouths.

That’s what Eva and I have seen. However, we also wonder what the students actually take away from an experience such as this. So, we asked them.

What was the best part of this trip and why?

  • “Watching baby turtles go into the sea”
  • “White water rafting”
  • “The night hiking”
  • “Playing soccer with the locals”
  • “I strengthened old friendships and built new ones”
  • “The places that we saw”

Every student experienced an aspect of this trip that struck a chord with him/her.


What difficulties did you experience on this trip and what did you gain from facing them”

  • “We did not have electronics…I faced it by playing games with my friends”
  • “Constantly being drenched in sweat and running out of clean clothes”
  • “Dangerous animals…I figured out that they are actually really cool” 
  • “The darkness…I gained that if I just face my fear I will get to see amazing things like an owl eating its prey (a mouse)”
  • “I had quite a hard time with giving up my phone, since I’m used to talking to my parents when I get scared…I learned that sometimes I   can deal with things myself”
  • “Facing my fear during the night hike…I gained the wonderful experience of seeing really cool animals”

Every student faced challenges and they all grew personally from them.



What have you learned from this trip?

  • “I learned to work in a team”
  • “I learned a lot about different animals species and how to conduct different types of scientific research” 
  • “I learned how to get good data for a good question”
  • “How to adapt to new living conditions”
  • “I learned to spend my money wisely”
  • “I learned about biology and ecology”
  • “The reason why certain species exist and how they function” 
  • “A surprise is always good!”
  • “That the rainforest is really important to the environment”
  • “The smallest things can have the greatest impact, for example, turning off our lights”
  • “The culture of Costa Rica”
  • “I learned a lot about sea turtles”
  • “I learned about rainforests and leatherback turtles”
  • “I learned a lot about conservation and about how we can make the world a more sustainable place like by reducing our water usage and only preparing what we can eat” 
  • “I have learned that electricity and clean running water should be used carefully…and they are luxuries that many people don’t have”
  • “I have learned about sustainability a lot. I did not even have a clue before I came here” 
  • “I learned that if people care more about sustainability then the nature can be saved”

Every student learned from this experience: socially, culturally, scientifically, and environmentally.

Are there any personal practices in your life that you might change as a result of this trip?

  • “I will take shorter showers” (the most common answer, several times over!)
  • “I won’t waste food” (the second most common answer, several times over!) 
  • “I will also take cold showers to reduce energy usage” 
  • “Support local economies”
  • “I will also tell my parents to cook less so we don’t waste as much food” 
  • I will try to become more sustainable: recycle more, turn off lights and I have some ideas to propose in school"


Would you recommend this trip to other students? Why or Why not?

100% of our participants recommend this trip to others and here’s why:

  • “It is a great learning experience”
  • “This trip is really an eye-opener”
  •  “It teaches a lot about the environment and about the animals and sea turtles”
  • “It is an amazing experience and a once in a life-time opportunity”
  • “It teaches people the importance of preserving our planet” 
  • “It also opens the minds of people to see how adaptable we really are to our environment. Conserve adapt, and be the change”
  • “An amazing opportunity to focus on what is actually important: face to face interaction with friends, laughter through sound instead of emojis, conserving and practicing sustainability, and becoming more aware of the world around us”
  • “You gain an appreciation of nature”

As Eva and I peruse through the student reflections on the plane ride home, we look at each other and say, “What more could we ask for?” Additionally, EPI has provided us with a wonderful curriculum, excellent instructors, an amazing program/itinerary, and an incredible support system in the country.

Indeed, this trip was worth it and we are already thinking of ideas, using EPI again, for next year!


If you're interested in knowing more about Ecology Project International (EPI), the group that organized our trip, click here.

leaf cutter ants at work

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO: Turtle Reserve

The rainforest has been hot and humid for us. Seriously, I’ve never been so permanently wet in my life. Nothing dried, not even our hair.  As we leave La Suerte we are hoping the sea might bring us refreshment. We endure a long bus ride and then boat ride before we arrive at Pacuare, a Nature Reserve on the Caribbean.  We lug our baggage from the boat along a forested trail to quaint cabins situated right where rainforest meets beach. Though there is no electricity and the fresh water is limited, we settle right into what we find to be cozy accommodations.

And, most importantly, the beach does afford us a refreshing breeze and we feel the sticky hot sliding from our skin. That evening we begin our night patrols: under a full moon, beautiful breezy weather with the water lapping at our ankles. “This is perfect. How hard can this be?” we ask. Well, the next night yields a different experience.

Eva grips my hand with the iron-man clasp prompting my comment, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve done in my life.” We can’t even see each other it’s so dark. Each step we take is into a black abyss leaving us completely reliant on the pair in front of us to give warning of any obstacles they encounter (i.e. dips in the sand, drift wood, logs, washed up coconuts, etc.). The rain drenches every part of my lower body and raindrops slide down my back as rain penetrates my jacket. The downpour pelts us ferociously and we stumble forward over sticks and other debris.

Unusually wet conditions and flooding of the beach has prevented many leatherback turtles from accessing the beach and has destroyed the nests of many who did make it ashore. Thus, our night patrols yield no sightings of mother leatherback turtles or hatchlings. Were any of our groups to spot either mothers or hatchlings they would have participated in taking measurements and recording important data relevant to the conservation of this magnificent species. We did, however, get lucky one day…

Part of the work at Pacuare involves monitoring known nesting sights (those that were observed being created on night patrols). Once a nest has passed it’s “due date” researchers dig up the eggs to determine whether there are survivors or whether the nests have succumbed to fungi or bacteria rendering undeveloped eggs.  Students were interrupted from their research projects with news that a nest of survivors had been discovered.! We ran to the beach to watch the nest-investigation process.

Baby leatherbacks exit their shells and begin the 1 m (more or less) dig to the surface, with the leaders resting while others take the lead. They work in shifts until the entire hatchling group makes it to the surface. However, if most of the nest doesn’t hatch (as in the case of the one uncovered), the survivors have no chance to get to the surface as they don’t have the energy to do it alone.

The woman in the green kerchief to the right is researching the correlation between fungus and bacteria growth on and in the eggs with survival of the hatchlings. She collects data on each egg and then saves the survivors in a bucket of sand until they are ready to make their “run” for the ocean (a process critical for their ultimate survival).  Another nest unveils even more survivors. We are fortunate to be invited to the release of these babies later in the afternoon.

At the given time we all meet on the beach and the bucket is turned over to allow the babies to begin their journey to the sea. Together we share in this amazing experience under beautiful blue skies with sunrays warming our skin. It’s perfect and I’m so glad the students (and teachers!) are fortunate enough to get this experience.

Data collection and turtle observation is coupled to real-life research experience for the students.  Now the students are working on their comparative studies. Heads are bent with intensity. Hands are holding measuring devices, recording data, or pointed at interested parts of the experiment. 

Their topics include:

  1. Do members of our group throw a coconut further over or underhanded?
  2. Is there a difference between two species of ants’ time to run through a maze?
  3. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter ant’s walk over 1 m with and without a leaf?
  4. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter’s ascent vs. descent on the particular stem of a plant?

Discussions on sustainability and conservation continue throughout our time there. Students sample Costa Rican fruits and play a football (soccer) game with local youth. Our experience is fully rounded with conservation, science, and culture.

During what was supposed to be our last day a Pacuare, we are evacuated due to extreme rain and possible flooding of the area. Though our time there is cut short, we leave fulfilled with what we experienced.  Our remaining time in Costa Rica includes a visit to the Botanical Gardens and a day of rafting.

We compare the food waste from our first days to our last days. We’ve reduced our food waste from over I kg down to fewer than 200g. WOW- habits have changed. Students are also masters of the 2 min (or less) showers. They are thinking sustainably. For their last activity, students engage in an activity that involves ‘building’ sustainable towns. They realize how difficult it is to communicate and bring people together towards one goal. They are humbled with the task of making the world more aware of the importance of conservation and living sustainably. They know they’ll start with their families.

Eva and I reflect  on this experience and whether it was worth it and whether we would consider doing another trip (I'll write about that next). We hope none of us will return home and forget about the lessons we have learned here. Cleansed from a warm shower and feeling fulfilled, Eva and I slip into slumber anticipating our long flight journey home.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

A baby leatherback turtle entering the water

To learn more about Ecology Project International (EPI), click here.

Graceless Green

The intermingling aromas of French fries and spring rolls from the cafeteria diffuse throughout my room. Stacked boxes await attention. Bites of lunch are snatched in between refolding boxes, sealing edges, digging through recycled paper bins for colored paper, and labeling the assembled bins.  Joyous chatter permeates the classroom. And soon a stack of boxes labeled for recycling plastic, paper, and markers has reached the ceiling of my classroom.

With glee the students began an orderly distribution of their bins throughout the school.  With five minutes to spare, exuberant students retrieve their backpacks and shuffle off to class expressing satisfaction with their accomplishment.

At first my heart is filled with skepticism for our inelegant approach. Would we create a shabby image for our school with cardboard boxes scattered throughout?  However, as I amble through the hallways noting their work I realize that their approach is, indeed, truly in the spirit of “Going Green”. The bins are 100% recycled! And they don’t look so bad. Suddenly my heart is brimming with pride for my little Going Green Group and their enthusiastic efforts for change.

We have all disbursed for the holidays but as New Year’s resolutions abound, perhaps you’ll consider taking a step towards a “greener” New Year?!? 

P.S. I had pictures but I've lost them! I'll take some more and add them later, once we've returned to school...

Becoming an Eco-School

Two men in suits stand engrossed in conversation.  They immediately turn to me and, switching from Dutch to English, offer welcoming handshakes as I cross the threshold of the room. The meeting is scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes and the table is prepared with coffee and tea and seats for ten people. My greeters are the host of this event and the country-head of Eco-Schools.

The others trickle in and we gather cozily around the table that fills the small room. Seven people represent three schools that are already accredited with Eco-Schools, and are proud displayers of the Eco-Schools Green Flag. Another woman, like me, is from a school that is in the initial phase of accreditation. She and I are here to gain as much information as possible about the accreditation process as well as ideas for a successful Green Program at our schools.

My jaw nearly drops to the table when a parent representative describes their six eco-groups in the secondary school, totalling 70 students. The elementary school boasts another 130 participants in grades 2-5. Others around the table are impressed and the representatives kindly remind us that they’ve been doing this for six years. Furthermore, their student numbers are about five times ours. They share amazing ideas and projects that are taking place at their school.

What is the secret? “Green is fun…” the parent explains, “It’s cool. It’s popular.”

It was a bit daunting to see the work the other schools had completed, but it was also inspiring. As they questioned me about the work our small green team has completed, they were very complimentary, and even impressed, reminding me that it isn’t about he numbers, it’s about the mindset and the process.

Our little group started out with four student-members and two teachers last year. Now we claim twelve active student-participants, a strong parent contributor, and five teacher supporters. Our projects include but are not limited to

  • A garbage audit that resulted in several proposals to reduce waste at the school which we are in the process of implementing. Mug racks for the teacher’s lounge have been completed and will be installed soon in order to reduce plastic cup waste at the school. Money has been raised to purchase water bottles for all students and eliminate plastic bottles and disposable drink containers. Our goal this year is to add plastic recycling, in addition to the paper recycling, bins in all the rooms at the school.
  • A goal to separate all the cafeteria waste so that the food can be hauled off separately for recycling in addition to all paper and plastic. This should drastically reduces our trash waste.
  • Lights Off Fridays and Warm Sweater Days increase awareness and also lower the school’s energy usage.

The students are ambitious and have a huge list of things they’d like to accomplish. From the eco-schools meeting I obtained a host of additional ideas for our group to consider. This Friday we will meet to decide exactly what we want to focus on for our short and long range goals this year and into the future.

Of a few things I am certain. One is that our initiative is important. We have an obligation to our Earth and future generations to protect the world we live in. There are people associated with our school (parents and/or other community members) that will be interested in joining our group and providing more ideas and manpower to help us progress forward, we just need to find them.

Our school will benefit from becoming an environmentally sustainable school. The benefits are likely to extend into areas of community image, appeal to knew families, energy savings, school unity, and general feeling at the school.

Being surrounded by teachers who share a passion for sustainability bolstered me up and strengthened me in the pursuit of building the Green Program at our school. Their programs have gained momentum and support over time, also having begun with the simple garbage audit a few years ago, like we did last year. I think our program is on the same path of growth.

We will collaborate together as regional eco-schools to have our students meet each other and join forces in sustainable efforts. I look forward to this association and to the support it will provide our program. After all, there is strength in numbers, right?

If you’re interested in more sustainable life, go for it! If you’re interested in helping your school or organization become more sustainable, go for it!  It’s worth it, of that I am certain.