Rites of Passage: Spring Study Break in Costa Rica

To spend your spring break in a warm climate is a rite-of-passage for many college students. To spend it doing field research in the Costa Rican cloud forest for college credit is not, but many of our students think it should be.

A Mind-Altering Experience

“It is not only an exceptional opportunity to study tropical plants and animals in their natural setting, but a mind-altering experience. In Palo Verde, we were all standing in a dried-up marsh, watching the sunset. It was beautiful and enlightening. I just left at peace with myself,” Biology major Jennifer Jordan.

Jordan is talking about the undergraduate credit course, Tropical Field Ecology, developed in 1998 by Peter Curtis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (EEOB).

In alternate years, Curtis takes several Honors students to Costa Rica for a field-trip experience of a lifetime, “For me, the course is all about getting to know a group of students really well and experience tropical biology, as if for the first time, through their eyes. As an instructor it just doesn’t get any better,” Curtis said.

Learning about biodiversity and conservation issues firsthand

Jackson Helms in Costa Rica.Students who make the trip are typically jazzed about it—before, during, and after. One of the most enthusiastic, Jackson Helms, an Evolution and Ecology major “really looked forward to this trip." He said, "What a way to learn about biodiversity and conservation issues firsthand—and to share the experience with 13 other amazing students.”

Costa Rica has an abundant, rich natural diversity of flora and fauna. The budding ecologists are on the move from sunup to sundown each day, exploring three major ecosystems—cloud forest, tropical dry forest, and tropical rain forest.

Helms said, “We went on multiple hikes nearly every day, all the while experiencing and learning about the overwhelming natural diversity. We even visited primary successional areas around an active volcano!”

No walk-in-the park vacation

Students are required to design and carry out their own field research projects and present the results to the class. One result for Jordan, who had been pre-med: “The trip inspired me to consider graduate studies in ecology. It was a real eye-opener. What we do in Ohio has a huge impact on the environment and the tropics.”

Students are surprised to find how close they become. Camaraderie continues long after they return and some friendships and memories will last a lifetime. As Jordan put it, “It allowed us to forge an amazing bond with each other, fueled both by the field experiences, as well as epic euchre games.”