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Kent State Students Study Biology in Costa Rica Over Winter Break

Posted Feb. 13, 2012 | Ryan Collins
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Kent State biology students gain firsthand experience in
Costa Rica.

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Oscar Rocha, Ph.D., originally from Costa Rica, learned how eye-opening a trip there can be for American students.

“I’m always going to remember the first time I took a group of students [to Costa Rica]. It made me value a lot of the things that to me growing up in a tropical country were normal,” Rocha says.

Rocha described hiking with students and seeing a line of leaf-cutter ants. To him, they were everyday creatures and easily found in his backyard as a child. However, his students were captivated.

“I have all the students on the ground taking pictures of these ants, and then it made me realize, ‘Well, this is something completely new for them.’ These are simple things that to me are normal and were a part of my childhood. Every time that I stop when we’re hiking and I point at something, I know it’s new for them,” he says.

According to Rocha, his students gain international experience from going overseas, they learn about diverse ecosystems, including a tropical rainforest, and get hands-on experiential learning.

“All the different plants, all the different orchids, all the different animals, all the colors, it was really beautiful,” says Ashley Golphin, senior biological sciences major.

“It’s not just taking notes and reading a textbook,” Rocha says. “I warned them, ‘You have to get in shape or you will not enjoy this class.’”

The students are split into groups and work with Rocha, teaching assistants and on-site Costa Rican scientists. The groups are given questions and hypotheses, and they analyze data and prepare a presentation for each biological site visited. Students returned to the U.S. Jan. 9, and they are now taking a course centered on their findings and experiences while in Costa Rica. They leave the class with an entire course book and plenty of experience under their belts.

“I thought the trip seemed like it was way longer than the two weeks I was down there,” says Dean Horton, senior cellular and molecular biology major. “It was such a life-fulfilling event. I learned a lot spiritually and mentally. I am a lot more prepared for research, and that definitely solidified in me that I want to do research.”

Along with biology and research, students also learn about local culture, food, environmental issues, government policies and a different culture.

“Believe it or not, there are some students who can barely speak Spanish when we arrive there,” Rocha says. By the end of the trip, he says they are able to communicate with Costa Ricans who interact with them at the different places that they visit.

Even so, the biennial trip is geared toward biology students, with three introductory biology courses required to sign up. Juniors and seniors are given preference, with the next trip scheduled in 2013.

Department of Biological Sciences Chair James Blank, Ph.D., believes in the importance of a Kent State partnership with the University of Costa Rica.

“Interestingly, while the habitats in Northeast Ohio and Costa Rica are clearly different, we do share a common interest in how we protect the biological habitats in which we live. I foresee this course as the beginning of close academic ties between our two institutions,” Blank says.

Rocha also knows that the course leaves an impact on students.

“More than 80 students have come to Costa Rica with me, and they get a lot more than just a few credits. I think they get an experience that they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Watch a video about the Biology Class’s visit to Costa Rica.

For more information about this program, contact the Department of Biological Sciences at kentbiology@kent.edu.