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Tropical Fervor:  A Semester Afield in Costa Rica

For students in the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) Undergraduate Programs in Costa Rica, a day at school is hardly a routine college experience. Students might wake up to the chattering of capuchin monkeys, or watch bird in awe as magnificent tropical birds such as toucans or resplendent quetzals flash brilliantly in the trees. Daytime hours might be spent surveying butterflies or attempting to catalogue a breathtaking array of rainforest plants. Evenings might be spent -- yes -- studying, or listening to a lecture by an eminent tropical biologist, or maybe celebrating a holiday at a local fiesta by learning a traditional Costa Rican dance.

The OTS summer program, a collaborative program with Duke University, gives students from a wide array of colleges and universities a chance for a deep, hands-on exploration of tropical biology. The America's Program, a division of NSF's International Program provides funding for approximately one third of the program participants. The NSF funding is targeted specifically toward students from economically disadvantaged and underrepresented populations, providing assistance with travel, subsistence, and other expenses, with a goal of broadening the number and students diversity of students exposed to and trained under this internationally recognized program in tropical biology. Students in the program are enrolled for the course at Duke University, with most receiving transfer credit for their courses from their own institutions, which range from major research universities to small liberal arts colleges.

Students in the OTS Duke University course start with week-long visits to a series of biological field stations, in strikingly varied environments, throughout the Central American nation, including the Palo Verde Research Station, in northwest Costa Rica, rich with wetlands and seasonal dry forests, and the LaSelva Biological Station, one of the world's leading centers for research on tropical rainforest ecology. (Students are also oriented to the realities of tropical research -- learning, for instance, about the need to develop profound respect for the habits of venomous snakes.)

Field research lies at the core of the OTS summer program. With advice and assistance from faculty, students design and carry out their own short research projects. These projects expose the students to sampling techniques, experimental design, hypothesis testing, data analysis and presentation of results. In the past, student research projects have focused on phenomena ranging from hummingbird behavior to ecological comparisons of deep forest interior areas and forest edges.

students It would be difficult to imagine a more ideal environment than Costa Rica in which to introduce students to issues in tropical biology, to related research techniques, as well as the often-difficult environmental challenges facing developing nations in the tropics. Few places, anywhere, can rival Costa Rica in terms of variety of habitats in such a small area. Here in a nation of only about 20,000 square miles (an area smaller than West Virginia), live an estimated half million different species. About four percent of all the species on earth live in Costa Rica, a nation that represents only about .001 percent of the earth's total area.

Costa Rica's varied ecosystems represent an enormous, and exciting biological challenge in terms of simply discovering what species are present, was well as how they interact ecologically. At present, scientists have identified and named only about 17 percent of the estimated species. (Most of those still not yet identified are invertebrates, most notably the arthropods -- insects, mites, and spiders. NSF is also co-funding a detailed survey of the arthropods of the lowland tropical rainforest at LaSelva.)

The Organization for Tropical Studies is a nonprofit consortium of more than 55 universities and research centers from both the United States and Costa Rica. Its goal is to provide leadership in education, research, and responsible use of natural resources in the tropics.

For more information please see:

Organization for Tropical Studies

Project ALAS - Arthropods of La Selva http://viceroy.eeb.uconn.edu/ALAS/ALAS.HTML

This research is partially supported by the Division of International Programs.

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Summer 99 students
USAP Summer 99 learning about tropical forestry in Sarapiquí, Costa Rica.

The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), in partnership with Duke University, offers a semester and summer program for undergraduates. Both programs utilize all three OTS field stations as well as other Costa Rican sites, with instruction focusing on the OTS method of field-based, experimental learning. Graduates of an OTS undergraduate program will be well prepared for advanced studies in tropical biology and resource management.
The students in the photos are: (top, left) Jessica Lucas (Southern Illinois University), Myesha Mooney (Hampton University) and Brock Bourassa (University of Maryland); (bottom, left) Myesha Mooney (Hampton University) and Brock Bourassa (University of Maryland); (below) Christy Bellamy (Hampton University) and Clark Smith (Duke University).

students in the laboratory
Students in the laboratory at La Selva Biological Station.


All photos of students copyright Sandra M. Rodriguez, OTS.
Photo of bird and drawing of butterfly provided by OTS.

All photos and illustrations are copyright© of their respective owners and may not be used without permission.
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