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Semester in Costa Rica Program - Environmental Studies

By participating in the ICADS' semester long Field Program, students gain research experience in both the natural sciences (forest ecology, agro-ecology, soil sciences) and social sciences (anthropology, history, economics) while learning to address environmental issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. Students are provided with the analytical tools and research expertise to make meaningful contributions to ongoing work in the area of "sustainable development," with the recognition that workable solutions to environmental conflicts can only come from an understanding of the intersection between community needs, ecosystem dynamics, and political-economic systems.

The Field Program is divided into 3 blocks:

Block I

(5 weeks): Spanish and Latin American Perspectives on Justice and Sustainable Development Semester Course

Study in San Jose and the Central Valley. Students live in San Jose with Costa Rican families, and study Spanish for four hours daily. In afternoon sessions, students learn about different topics in social and natural sciences through related readings, guest speakers, and field trips, as well as fieldwork on urban issues. One week in Block I is spent in Nicaragua where students are able to see first-hand the current economic and political conditions in Nicaragua, and are challenged to compare and contrast its reality with neighboring Costa Rica.

Block II

(4 weeks): Field Projects - Ecology of Managed and Natural Ecosystems

Students carry out brief social and ecological research projects while living and traveling together primarily in rural communities. A short stopover in San Jose is included to allow students to conduct research for their independent study projects, prepare written reports, and lead group discussions. In Block II, students visit 3 to 4 different areas within Costa Rica where they learn about a diversity of ecological zones and systems of regional development. Some of these destinations may include the wet tropics in the Atlantic Lowlands, the Cloud Forest in the Talamanca mountain ranges, the tropical dry region in the Guanacaste province, and the Northern zone. Topics and field sites vary from semester to semester in response to new study opportunities and environmental conditions.

Topics studied in the Field Program include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The roots of underdevelopment, particularly Costa Rica's dependency on transnational companies and First World governments
  • Natural and managed ecosystem dynamics, with emphasis on the origin and maintenance of biodiversity
  • The tools for measuring health of ecosystems via floral and faunal indicator species
  • The environmental and economic implications of plantation agriculture, small-scale farming, ecotourism, bioprospecting, and national park management
  • The impact of export-oriented development on family structure, class hierarchy, and racial divisions
  • Strategies for conserving natural resources (e.g. organic agriculture, agro-forestry and sustainable extraction of timber and other products from forests), facilitating community organization (e.g. women's groups, farmers' cooperatives) and promoting local control over systems of production (e.g. home gardens, marketing cooperatives).

Block III

(5 weeks): Independent Projects and written work

Students return to one of the previously visited field sites to conduct in-depth research on a topic of their choice. They independently develop research proposals, collect data, and analyze their results. Topics may emphasize either the social or natural sciences. Students are encouraged to develop projects that have practical value for their host communities or organizations. During the course's final week, students prepare written reports and give oral presentations of their research findings.

Research Project Examples from Fall 2011

  1. Edge effect is an important phenomenon for study and can tell us a lot about the effects of deforestation, not only on the deforested area, but on the forest itself, as its effective size shrinks due to non-forest conditions along its edge. Many forests have been cut in Costa Rica to grow monoculture crops like pineapple, as has been done in the Southern Pacific region. Josh will be studying the diversity of bird, insect, and other vertebrate species in a forest and along two of its edges (near a cattle pasture and near a pineapple farm) to determine the impact of edge effect in the forest.
  2. Stream health is of vital importance for the general health of larger ecosystems, as aquatic invertebrates are part of the necessary foundation for the diversity of other species. On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, streams also feed into coral reefs near the shore and serve as important resources for local communities. Timothy will be measuring the diversity of aquatic invertebrates at different points in a stream in this region to determine the effect of gray water and agricultural runoff on the aquatic ecosystem.
  3. Around the world, humans use land to make a living. In many places, cattle ranching and farms that cause soil erosion and runoff into streams dominate land use. Erosion not only strips the land of its fertile topsoil, but sediment runoff chokes streams that provide water to ecosystems and communities. Michelle will be studying both sediment load and aquatic invertebrates in several streams in the Southern Pacific zone to understand the possible effects of different land uses on streams, and to contribute to important monitoring work that should be done on streams everywhere.
  4. Cacao production on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has faced many challenges in the past decades, from the arrival of the monilia fungus to the challenges posed by an economy increasingly relying on tourism. One generally less-researched problem to cacao production is the vertebrate pests that attack the pods: parrots, woodpeckers, squirrels, and monkeys. Maura will research the prevalence of such pests on a farm that grows cacao in order to make recommendations to farmers for maximizing time and effort in managing those pests.

For more information about the Semester in Costa Rica Program contact the Study Abroad Office at or (603) 641-7371.