In late July, 10 US students along with US science department chair Anita Chetty embarked on an eye-opening journey to scenic Costa Rica. Accompanied by US physics teacher Chris Spenner, the group spent approximately two weeks performing research, conservation work and keeping tabs on the country’s wildlife.
Students on the trip were Amy Rorabaugh, Noriko Ishisoko, Miriam Lee, Adrienne Wong, Tiffany Kyi, Erica Hansen, Carina Fernandes, Alex Creasman, Brittany Chu and Melanie Herscher, all currently Gr. 12.
After arriving in Costa Rica with five large tubs of research equipment, the team embarked on a lengthy bus and boat trek to Tortuguero National Park the following day. On Sunday morning, the students performed a beach clean-up to prepare for tagging sea turtles for the Caribbean Conservation League that evening.
Creasman nearly became “the first Harker student whose turtle built a nest and for all intents and purposes, was on target to deposit eggs,” Chetty said. Just as Creasman was about to start counting, however, the turtle had a change of heart and decided not to lay eggs after all!
A highlight of the trip to Tortuguero was the opportunity to work with Costa Rican school children in educating the locals about electricity use and carbon load. “The local people tend to leave their lights on throughout the night as a safety and security measure,” Chetty said. “Our students worked with local school children to create posters advertising the advantages of using compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of regular incandescent bulbs. They then walked through the town distributing bulbs that we purchased in San Jose. The local shopkeepers were very enthusiastic about putting up the posters in their shops and the people were very grateful to receive the bulbs, which are very expensive in Costa Rica.” Chetty added, “This was a great chance to practice Spanish as well.”
After two days of turtle tagging and egg counting (Chu was the record holder at 92 eggs counted), students headed back to the hotel to begin research projects in the conference-room-turned-research-lab. “The objective of the trip was to immerse students in field research so they could experience first-hand the excitement of discovery with the challenges of conducting research in the wilderness,” Chetty said. “Unlike a controlled laboratory setting, the field presents many unpredictable variables such as sudden weather changes, bugs and just simply the unpredictability of animal behavior.”
It was a great opportunity for the young scientists to display their problem-solving and troubleshooting skills. Ishisoko discovered a long PVC pipe in a remote hardware store and used it to connect to her microphone. The long pipe allowed her to record frog calls at a safe distance so that the frog behavior was not affected by her presence.
Spenner’s skills in computer programming came in handy when he helped Chu and Creasman predict the behavior of leaf cutter ants. A program he created predicted how long it would take a disturbed leaf cutter ant to reorient itself back to its original path. Chu and Creasman then conducted studies to determine how long it actually took the ants to find their old path and compared it to the predicted value.
Lee and Kyi spent many hours collecting ants that gathered around flowering plants. Their prediction was that ants were unlikely pollinators of plants. Carrying their digital microscopes all over Costa Rica, Kyi and Lee collected and stained ants and the pollen that collected on their bodies, taking digital images to show that pollen that collects on ants does not germinate.
Hansen examined soils in banana and coffee plantations to determine whether the overuse of fertilizers might be impacting the nitrate levels in water that leeches out of the soils. She was fortunate to culminate her research in Monteverde under the mentorship of a soil scientist. Herscher reconstructed hummingbird feeders trying to examine how the presence of feeders affects those birds’ social behavior, while Wong examined butterfly diversity in forests and plantations. Rorabaugh and Fernandes conducted a water quality assessment using digital monitoring equipment.
At Monteverde Institute (MVI), the students worked many hours refining and writing up their research findings. They presented their findings at the institute and are expected to present at Harker’s own research symposium in March. “The mentors at MVI became so attached to our students that the director of the program shed tears as we were leaving,” Chetty said. “She ordinarily works with UC students and told me that she had never met such talented and motivated students.”
The next stage of the trip took place back at the MVI, where the students continued their work alongside research assistants. They did more field work, examining Costa Rica’s abundance of varied wildlife, although the elements nearly stymied their efforts. “It rained hard last night and we are waiting for things to dry up so they can observe their leaf cutter ants,” Chetty wrote in one of her frequent updates back to Harker. Students caught some notable lectures, one given by Dr. Alan Pounds, whose papers in the journal “Nature” have shed light upon the relationship between climate change and the extinction of the golden toad. They also attended a talk by world-renowned bat specialist Dr. Richard LaVal.
Days of field work, research, observation and preparation at last culminated toward the end of the trip when the students presented their results at the Monteverde Institute.
At various points during the trip, the student researchers also managed to get away for some fun, spending some time whitewater rafting, swimming and even salsa dancing. They also went zipline riding and visited a cacao plantation, where they learned how the “drink of the gods” was made for the Mayan kings. “Grinding roasted cocoa beans and making hot chocolate and chocolate bars was a highlight,” Chetty said.
Chetty said next year’s trip to Costa Rica will occur over the same time period. She explained that there will be some changes made to the itinerary and that a new collaboration with the University of Georgia will expand the research component of the trip.