Course description


Throughout the trip my eyes were opened to remarkable environments and new ways to teach my students ... Each of the projects changed how I teach ... I have always valued hands-on learning but now I am incorporating more science inquiry in all of my courses. Each day that I teach, it seems like I am incorporating ... my experiences in Costa Rica.  -- Amy Braverman, Alexander HS, Albany, Ohio

Science teaching is under intense scrutiny and review, thanks to the National Research Council’s Framework for Science Education and the National Academy of Sciences’ Next Generation Science Standards.

As the NRC framework notes, virtually all extant science standards     “ …  are long lists of ... disconnected facts, reinforcing the criticism that ... science curricula tend to be “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Not only does this approach alienate young people, it also leaves them with fragments of knowledge and little sense of the inherent logic and consistency of science and of its universality.

In other words, teaching science as a list of “facts” is both inaccurate and counterproductive. But trying to teach about process without content is also meaningless.

So what’s the solution?

Using the process of science to deliver the content of science, by presenting factual knowledge through inquiry and active learning.

That’s easily said, but not so easily done. Genuine inquiry-based teaching can seem difficult, or even terrifying, to teachers accustomed to basing classroom credibility on being, “the person with the answers.” Because the moment a teacher begins a real inquiry-based lesson, students are going to start asking questions that the “answer guy/gal” can’t answer. And those questions will keep coming; the more exciting and relevant the inquiry, the more questions it will inspire!

Our course helps participants adapt to designing and managing inquiry-based lessons by modeling an entirely different different style of teaching. We turn teachers loose in the rain forest, where  the novelty of tropical organisms and ecosystems re-awakens their sense of wonder and excitement about nature. We encourage them to ask questions based on their observations. Then, using methods informed by half a century of experience in teaching through research, we help participants generate testable hypotheses from their questions ... and we’re off and running in a new paradigm of teaching and learning.

Exploring digital media to engage students is another element of our approach. Advances in digital devices and software now enable participants (and their students) to produce high-quality videos using smartphones, tablets, and relatively inexpensive digital cameras.

So we guide participants in conceptualizing, shooting, and editing videos. After all, if we’re emphasizing that science is a process, what better way to help students understand the process than to demonstrate it in a video?  We encourage participants to explore and experiment with different video styles (illustrative, personal narrative, humorous, music-driven). We help each individual harness his or her creative potential to communicate about science in ways tailored to particular student populations. We also suggest ways to engage students by assigning videos as class projects.   

Our diverse field study sites include lowland Caribbean rain forest the La Selva field station of OTS, where an extensive trail network enables research groups to explore and conduct field studies on their own with confidence. We conduct additional field observations on recent lava flows undergoing primary succession around Arenal Volcano, while staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The course concludes with additional field work, discussions, and workshops in the mid-elevation forests surrounding the Soltis Center of Texas A&M University.

Daily schedules are full. Lectures, workshops, and field work are intensive and rigorous, as appropriate for a graduate course. The course is exciting, fun, and demanding ... and not a relaxing eco-tour. Applicants should be certain to understand what to expect.

... Personally, I was afraid that I was going to walk through our woods and be disappointed ...  Cardinals don’t match toucans, and squirrels are a poor substitute to capuchins.  However, I was amazed in the beauty I found when I returned.  Ferns I never noticed, 2 or 3 spectacular wild flowers, and a gray fox all revealed themselves—and I appreciated them more.  The rain forest made me a better observer of my surroundings—I see the world with new eyes—the blind can now see. - From William Hodges, Holt HS, Holt, Michigan


Clockwise from top left: Eyelash viper ... camouflaged and potentially deadly; Iguana ... firce-looking but not agressive; Reanalmia infliorescence ... a member of the ginger family