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J-Term in the Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica

By: Celine Thormann

Each year, the long six weeks of J-term loom, and many Miami students are left searching for ways to fill the time. Fortunately, Miami offers many study abroad opportunities that cater to a wide variety of interests. As someone interested in the environment, I was excited to participate in the J-term class called Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica, led by Dr. Hays Cummins, Dr. Donna McCollum and Ron Stevens. The course consisted of 5 credit hours cross-listed across several life sciences departments, and 1 credit hour in photography. Now, two weeks after the three-week program has ended, I can confidently say that there is no better course for someone looking to better understand the environment and how everything is tied together in a complex web of interactions than this one. The course lasts exactly 21 days, but feels like it lasts a full semester. The course takes experiential learning to the next level, with only around 2 hours a day  spent in the classroom during the evening after the day’s activities and research are complete. During the trip, you are constantly in motion and only spend a maximum of four nights in any one location. The trip begins on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, though I must warn you that this is not a trip for someone looking to spend time on the beach. Instead, the days are spent hiking through forests and natural parks, visiting animal sanctuaries and indigenous villages and collecting data from tide pools. In the first few days, you will be split up into research groups to determine a research question that you and your team want to answer throughout the trip, gathering data from each location you visit. My team decided to investigate the impact that flower color has on the number of pollinators that a flower attracts. This meant that we had extra reason to examine the abundance of brightly colored flowers that populate Costa Rica. image10

The entrance to the indigenous Bribri Village. Photo courtesy of Ryan Yanchar.


A Great Green Macaw at the macaw preserve we visited. Photo courtesy of Sarah Herbruck.


An example of a hermit crab that would be found in one of the tide pools we studied. Photo courtesy of Sarah Herbruck.


The entrance to Cahuita National Park. Photo courtesy of Lydia Yamashiro.


How we traveled to the Bribri village. Photo courtesy of Lydia Yamashiro.


Students stuck in the mud on one of our early hikes. Photo courtesy of Kyle Mason.

After our first few nights in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge, we moved on to Estacion Las Tortugas, known as the Turtle Station. Run by a man named Stanley, the Turtle Station is one of the best examples of community-based conservation that can be found. The station is staffed almost entirely by workers and depends on volunteer groups like ours for a lot of their work. Since January is not leatherback turtle season, our class spent our two nights there building a hatchery for the turtles, learning about the nuanced world of turtle egg poaching and turtle protection from Stanley and his staff. The work we did at the Turtle Station was a highlight of the trip for me, and I would recommend the experience there to anyone. I would, however, warn participants  to not expect luxury accommodations or beautiful weather, as we all had to deal with some critters in our rooms and beds and it rained a good part of the time we were there. image3

The hatchery we built at the Turtle Station. Photo courtesy of Ryan Yanchar.


The entrance to the Turtle Station. Photo courtesy of Megan Jackson.


Students taking a break from cleaning up the beaches at the Turtle Station. Photo courtesy of Ron Stevens.

We spent the next several days at La Selva Biological Station, a gathering place for student scientists and environmentalists in Costa Rica. This was another trip highlight: being surrounded by so many other scientists and people passionate about the environment was inspiring and encouraging. We were reminded again to think about the impact each of our actions has when we calculated how many trees at La Selva it would take to neutralize the carbon emitted by our flights to Costa Rica. The results were sobering, but the scientists in charge of La Selva emphasized that their mission was not to make people perfectly eco-friendly, but rather to inspire many to be imperfectly eco-friendly. image6

A suspension bridge at La Selva. Photo courtesy of Lydia Yamashiro.


A crocodile spotted at La Selva. Photo courtesy of Lydia Yamashiro.


Making friends with local wildlife at La Selva. Photo courtesy of Celine Thormann.

The next place we stayed was Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Cloud forests are fascinating areas for people interested in ecology, as the number of endemic species is unusually high. Endemic species are species found specifically in one area of the globe. The forest lives up to its name, and all of the students were very glad that we brought jackets. The striking part of the cloud forest is how different it was from the other forests that we visited. The sheer amount of biodiversity that exists within Costa Rica, a relatively tiny country, is overwhelming. The stunted, gnarled, moss-covered trees that we saw in the cloud forest were a stark contrast to the towering trees that made up the canopy of other forests we saw. image7

A hike to the continental divide at Monteverde. Photo courtesy of Lydia Yamashiro.


A suspension bridge found on a hike at Monteverde. Photo courtesy of Megan Jackson.

The last place where we spent more than one night was Drake Bay. Drake Bay was particularly notable because we had to travel by boat to the forests we visited, and we even got to appreciate the marine life in Costa Rica. Some highlights included dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays and pufferfish. The night hikes that we went on while staying in Drake Bay were among the most picturesque hikes that we took the whole trip. At night, the forest feels like a completely different place than when it is daytime. Anyone going on this trip should be sure to bring a strong flashlight! The trip ended with a snorkeling excursion and the presentation of our research projects. We then hopped in a 12 person plane and flew back to the capital city of San Jose before returning to the United States. image8

A view from Drake Bay. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Spence.


Images captured from a snorkeling excursion. Photo courtesy of Kyle Mason.


Images from a snorkeling excursion. Photo courtesy of Kyle Mason.

For students considering this type of study abroad trip, I would say go for it! It is an experience unlike any other offered by Miami, or really any college. You will never get a deeper look at tropical ecosystems and how the people of Costa Rica are working to protect the natural beauty and resources of their country. This is not an experience for someone who is looking to have a restful J-term: you are working as a scientist almost every second of this trip. There are no weekends, and any free time may be filled with readings and data collection. This is also not a trip for someone who prefers luxury. While most of the lodges or hotels that we stay in are very nice, there are also several more rugged accommodations designed for a scientist on the go, rather than a vacationer. This is a trip for a student of any major. My group had majors ranging from fashion and education to biology and geography. Proficiency in Spanish is also not required for this trip, though it is helpful. If you are looking to learn more about the world we live in, and capture the moments as they happen, this is the trip for you. You will not regret taking this chance and spending the J-term trying something new.