Several years ago I traveled with some of my high school students to Costa Rica to study tropical biology. The purpose of the trip was to experience biodiversity and a culture different than their own first-hand. I often write about the benefits of educational travel. There are many reasons to incorporate travel into school or homeschool curriculum - enhance worldview, gain content knowledge, build 21st-century skills, make lifelong friends- among other things. Check out 6 Reasons to Start an Educational Travel Program for more.
I have taken dozens of educational trips throughout my teaching career but this trip to Costa Rica stands out among the rest. It exemplifies all of the reasons students should travel. The students were very involved in fundraising and trip planning. They enrolled in my pre-trip biodiversity seminar. Each student completed an independent, student-directed community action project (find this project in my TpT store by clicking on the link) in relation to biodiversity and Costa Rica. Students were immersed in another language and culture. They learned about the people, politics, topography, traditions, history, and of course the biodiversity of Costa Rica. Most importantly, this trip changed their lives. It will be an experience they will never forget because of just that. They experienced it. They weren't just reading the travel guide. They were in it.
During the trip one of the student travelers and I kept a blog on the experience. Each evening one or the other of us would come back to our hotel and write about the day. I wrote some posts and she wrote others. I took that blog we kept on our Costa Rica trip from five years ago and placed it below in hopes that you can be inspired to incorporate travel into whatever learning environment you're a part of. Happy travels!
High School Biology Trip: Costa Rica
The Time Has Arrived!
After two years of planning the day has finally arrived! A group of Jennings CS students will be heading out to Costa Rica to study tropical biology and environmental science on November 17, 2014. The idea to travel to Costa Rica came into fruition in 2012 by one of our students, but at the time was just a dream. We knew there would be challenges to traveling abroad such as getting passports and travel vaccinations, but the student overcame each obstacle. For example, she posted a "project" on Donors Choose asking for donations for passports and travel vaccinations. Within a week $800 was donated toward this project by complete strangers nationwide. Our Costa Rica travelers just purchased their very first passports a few weeks ago thanks to the generous donations. All is falling into place.
Pre-Trip Learning Activities and Preparation
- All students will be taking a biodiversity/environmental science course before the trip.
- All students will be working on one group PBL project throughout the course of the next couple of months. They will be conducting biodiversity surveys/counts in various habitats of MN and then again in Costa Rica.
- Spanish lessons
- Student-directed biology PBL projects
- Student-directed culture and history PBL projects
- Student-directed community action projects
Examples of student community action projects for this trip:
1) Primate protection petition - one of the students discovered that monkeys and other arboreal species are getting electrocuted by telephone wires while trying to get from place to place.
2) Sea turtle protection education brochure - one of our students researched how tourists can help protect sea turtles. She put together a brochure and placed her brochure in hotels around the country.
3) Trash to treasure - a couple of the students took plastic bags, CD's and other trash items and turned them into art pieces. This trash would otherwise make its way to the ocean threatening marine life.
Day 1 - WE MADE IT!
We left for the Minneapolis airport at 10:00 pm last night. It is now 7 pm the next day and we just arrived at our hotel. On the drive from the airport to Arenal Volcano we spotted a large iguana, blue jean dart frogs and tucans. We also passed through a cloud forest, stopped to check out a coffee bean farm, and ate authentic Costa Rican rice and beans for lunch. We are exhausted, so this will be a short post. But we are excited! Tomorrow will be a long day of exploring the Arenal National Park.
Below is a picture of Arenal (are-en-all) Volcano from the deck of our room. Arenal is one of 7 active volcanoes in Costa Rica. It last erupted in 2009, but was relatively harmless. The last serious eruption was 1968. Tomorrow we will be hiking the base of this volcano. Stay tuned!
Day 2 - Arenal National Park
We all went to bed last night by 8 pm from sheer exhaustion. We awoke at 6 am to the view of Arenal Volcano in the pic above. Apparently there is rarely a lucid view of the volcano. There is usually overcast covering the cone, so we were lucky (so we were told).
Today we hopped a bus and traveled to the rainforest to check out the canopy from hanging bridges. It was a three hour hike. We saw vipers, cutter ants, a sloth, a tarantula, parrots, a Montazuma pendulum bird (so cool), howler monkeys and their young, and on top of that the most diverse array of plant life I had ever seen, all from the perspective of an arboreal (tree) animal, since we were up in the canopy. We were able to see organisms that we would have had a tough time seeing from the ground.
We decided on Costa Rica because it is the biodiversity capital of the world. It hosts 5% of the world's biodiversity (variety of species) yet is only .03% of the world's land mass. Before we left for Costa Rica, our biodiversity class went to Fort Snelling State Park to do biodiversity sampling. In 100 square feet we recorded 5-10 species on average. In Costa Rica we did a similar activity. There were too many species to count. Many of the species are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Costa Rica. That is why the biodiversity needs to be protected. Costa Rica is one of the international leaders in land protection, since they became dangerously close to losing it all.
Day 3 - Adventure Day
I told the girls that they could plan one tour that is more adventure than education. They chose a ziplining/white water rafting tour. The students were nervous about ziplining at first. They got used to it after the first couple of cables. A couple of the girls were afraid of heights, so doing this was an incredible challenge and accomplishment for them. From there we went white water rafting on the Rio Balsa. We weren't the greatest paddlers at first, but about 15 minutes in we were doing well. We practiced communication skills and teamwork. After the tours we went to eat lunch with a group at a traditional Costa Rican spot. We ate rice and beans, fried plantain, beef, potatoes and topped it off with homemade Costa Rican fudge and coffee. They use a special strainer to make the coffee to get the most flavor possible. They demonstrated the process and the coffee was amazing.
Tomorrow we will be packing up and leaving Arenal to head to the coast. Mostly driving, but tomorrow evening we should be checking out the "arribada", arrival of nesting sea turtles to the beach in the thousands. Conditions have to be just right though, so cross your fingers.
Day 4 - Which Way to the Beach
Today we woke up, ate a quick breakfast of fresh Costa Rican fruit, beans and rice, and French toast. We packed up all of our things and hit the road, heading to the Pacific Coastal region of Guanacaste. Costa Rica is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. We went to the Pacific today. The students slept for most of the drive, but had a pleasant visit with seven howler monkeys on the way. Costa Rica has four monkey species including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and white-faced capuchins. We have seen howlers and spider monkeys and hope to see capuchins in the next couple of days.
The drive was 5 hours, which was a bit taxing, but there is no way around that in Costa Rica. There is not an established highway system in Costa Rica. It's hard to find straight roads because of all of the volcanoes. There are over 100 volcanoes in Costa Rica.
The girls were pleasantly surprised by our hotel. The picture below is the view from our deck. Unfortunately the minute we arrived it started storming. We got some bad news today. We will not be able to observe the "arribada" or arrival of nesting sea turtles because of torrential rain. We are pretty heartbroken. But tomorrow we will be going to visit the old Mayan town, Guaitil, to see them make traditional, hand-made pottery.
Day 5 - Guaitil Pottery and Palo Verde River Tour
Today we drove to Palo Verde where we did a river tour. We saw capuchin monkeys, iguanas (currently mating season, so the males turn from green to orange at this time), howler monkeys, crocodiles, and hundreds of different migratory bird species. Many of these birds were likely in the Midwest a few months ago, like great blue herons for example.
After Palo Verde we drove to a small Mayan town called Guaitil, where the Choretega people make pottery the same way they did hundreds of years ago. These are the native people of Costa Rica. It was an amazing experience to watch them make the pieces. So much time and meticulous detail goes into each pot.
Each pot is made on a small, manual pottery wheel. Not electric, no foot pedal, they just use their hands to spin it. The first phase is making the pot on the wheel with clay. They use sharpened rocks to cut the clay and leaves to smooth out the clay on the wheel. Once the desired shape is achieved, they leave it out in the sun to dry. Then they polish the piece with a stone. Next, a layer of white paint is put on it. It dries, and they polish it with stone again. Then a layer of black paint, thet let it dry, then polish it again. Then they take what looks like a crayon, and draws designs on the pot. All of the symbols they use represent something. Monkeys symbolize luck, butterflies symbolize beauty, and so on. From there they polish the piece one more time with a stone, and let the pot bake in the sun for 4-5 days. Finally they put the piece in a homemade oven to bake. It sounds like a challenging process, but the natives make it look easy!
Day 6 - Sibu Sanctuary
Today was an incredibly educational and emotional day. Two years ago, I dreamed up this trip. I wanted to work with monkeys in some form or another in the future, and learned that Costa Rica is a great place to study them. We found a place on the Guanacaste coast called Sibu Sanctuary, a large, protected, dry tropical rainforest. This 50 acres of land was bought by a couple of North Carolinians in 2009. On the property they built a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured arboreal (tree) species like monkeys, particularly howler and capuchin monkeys that are treated, cared for and eventually released back into the wild. Today we got to visit this sanctuary and get a behind the scenes glimpse of the ins and outs of such an operation.
When we arrived to the center we met Vicki. She explained to us the purpose for the center. Costa Rica is a conservation conscious country. They believe in conserving resources. For example, we learned from Vicki that 93% of Costa Rica's energy comes from renewable resources like wind and solar. They have also protected 25% of the land from destruction and fragmentation. This sanctuary was established specifically to rehabilitate monkeys that have been electrocuted by electric lines. The sanctuary took in 200 monkeys last year alone with horrific injuries that often times resulted in amputations or death. Mothers are often electrocuted with infants in tote, leaving the infants orphaned.
It is currently illegal for electric companies to run uninsulated wires through jungles, but unfortunately it still happens due to lack of enforcement. It is not possible to insulate existing wires. It is possible to put up new lines that are insulated and/or bury them, but both are costly. One thing that goes a long way is making sure those branches that hang over the lines are kept trimmed back to prevent the monkeys from trying to use the lines to get through fragmented forest. Boots to shield the transformers are also helpful. Education is the best way to make change. This experience in addition to some research I did before taking this trip inspired my community action project. Find the video titled "Baby Monkeys of Costa Rica" on YouTube to get a better idea of what goes on inside the sanctuary.
Day 7 - Last Day
Today we went kayaking and snorkeling in the coral reef. It was everyone's first time kayaking and most of their first times snorkeling. About half of the students had never even seen the ocean let alone swam in it. We saw a tiger snake, eels, a blowfish, sea urchins, crabs, an octopus and more. The students got to see some of the adaptations at work that have evolved in these animals to help them survive and reproduce, which they learned about in our evolution seminar earlier this year.
Educational Travel Resources
If this looks good to you, feel free to reach out anytime. I'd love to help you get your students traveling whether it be through a high school travel program, a homeschooling experience, or simply a family trip. There is an enormous amount of learning potential for young travelers regardless of how they get to their destination, especially in the planning process. I have many student travel resources available in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, most of which are free. Please check them out and let me know if you have any questions.
I also have many more blog posts on student travel right here on this blog. Just click on the category titled "Student-Travel".
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For much of January and some of February I have have slowed down on blogging, not because I haven't wanted to write but because I've been tied up in family travel. As most of you know we traveled to Denmark in January and right now we are in Florida visiting my parents. I am exhausted and so are the kids, but I don't regret any of it. There are learning experiences that can only be had from removing oneself from from the comforts of their everyday living and learning environments.
When I was teaching I was heavily involved in the school's travel program. There are few schools that have travel programs. Mine just happened to be one of them. The school's founder and director recognize the connection between travel and learning. Learning comes organically when traveling, especially when traveling with a group that shares the same purpose and goals. Our school travel program is an example of that. Our travelers bond over a profound shared experience.
I understand that our school travel program is a rare thing in public education. There are a couple things you can do if you do not have a school travel program at your school. Teachers, students, and parents can be proactive. Below I have listed a few ways students can travel if traveling through school isn't currently an option. I split them up into different roles for the sake of organization, but encourage combining your efforts.
8 Ways To Get High School Students Traveling
1. Start a Travel Program at Your School -
Go back to a previous blog post that I wrote on the Top 6 Reasons You Should Start a School Travel Program, put together a proposal that highlights the value of travel, and present it to the school board. Teachers, students, and parents can do this together. Creating a committee of teachers, parents and students would make the greatest impact. Strength in numbers!
2. Start a Travel Club -
If you can't have a full blown travel program at your school that provides traveling experiences to all then start a travel club. You can get it started by organizing and ironing out logistics, and students can take over from there. It would be like any other club, such as prom committee. They would organize fundraisers, plan travel opportunities, and recruit chaperones including teachers, parents, and community members.
3. Provide Support and Travel Resources -
If a school travel program just isn't realistic at your school, provide resources and encouragement to students that could really benefit from a travel experience. We had a student who wanted to study abroad in Japan her senior year. She worked with her school advisor to get there, as our school didn't have it's own exchange program with Japan. The student did most of the work, including the fundraising, but the support and assistance of her advisor was critical. The student did study in Japan her entire senior year, went off to college, studied abroad in Japan again, and ended up getting a degree in organizational development. This experience significantly changed this student's life and continues to play a role in her life. Her advisor recognized that and did everything she could to make it happen.
Students and Parents:
It's tough being a parent, as we want to provide as many experiences for our children as we can, but traveling isn't cheap. Many of us don't have the means to make it happen for our children. The reason I was able to bring my own children to Denmark is because it was paid for by my husband's company. If student travel is a priority, I would start by checking for schools in your community that have a travel program. If that doesn't exist or if that isn't an option, there are a variety of other ways to travel cheaply, especially when it is with a volunteer or educational organization.
Keep in mind, some of these options may not sound exciting. Just because it's not an adventure trip to Brazil or a food tasting experience in Paris doesn't mean it's not valuable. A simple two night camping trip a couple hours drive from home could be a profound life-altering experience.
1. Camp Counselor -
Students, consider applying for a job as a camp counselor at a summer camp. It could be nearby, or if you have a way of getting there, consider applying a little further from home. The great thing about this experience is that it's free and it's paid. Save that money for a grander travel experience such as that trip to Paris. Another plus is that it's organized. It's a great place to start teen travelers. Working at a camp is a great way to make lifelong friendships and memories.
2. WWOOF -
This stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. There are organic farms around the world that register for this program. Travelers can choose a farm from a catalogue to visit. You can stay at the farm in exchange for labor. You volunteer your time and they let you stay for free. Usually they provide much more such as fresh food from their farm, excursions after work hours, and more. I have taken students on WWOOF experiences, one to a chicken farm in Colorado and another to a maple syrup/hobby farm in St. Croix, Wisconsin. Both hosts took us on hikes, gave us lessons on farming, taught us how to can and cook using farm ingredients. The chicken farm was off the grid in the mountains of Colorado, so my students learned a lot about sustainable living and renewable energy. Students may have to raise money for airfare, and maybe food, but the rest is free. If they can't afford airfare, there are certainly WWOOF farms within driving distance. Parents: if this experience isn't with school, which it likely won't be, I highly recommend WWOOFing with your child. Background checks are not mandatory. Reputation is strictly based on reviews.
3. Conservation Corps -
There are Conservation Corps' scattered across the United States. There are several opportunities for student work within the organization, but their Summer Youth Corps program offers travel. Students travel around the state working and camping in state parks as they go. Students earn a small weekly stipend. The groups are small so they build deep and meaningful friendships with people from various walks of life. They work in dirt and learn the value of our natural world. I have several friends and students that have participated in this summer program. I highly recommend it. For students 18-25, consider applying for counselor positions.
4. Community Organized Travel -
Many of you are connected to a church, are in boy or girl scouts, or are active in the community ed system. A lot of these community organizations or clubs offer travel opportunities. Most of these will require fundraising on your part. My parents insisted that I go on trip with our church when I was 16. I fervently resisted, but didn't like to be at odds with my parents. I went on the trip because when it came down to it I didn't have a choice. It changed my life. Look for opportunities like this in your own community. You don't have to be a member of a church or affiliated with a religious organization. There are other community groups that offer such experiences. Keep your eyes and ears open.
5. Summer Volunteer Abroad -
There are a variety of volunteer abroad programs for teenagers, most of which take place in the summer. Check out this great list of organizations from GoAbroad.com that are not free, but reasonable. If you're finding that the experiences you are interested in will cost something, usually for transportation like flight, don't let that discourage you. There are a variety of ways to raise money for your learning adventure. Check out this blog post that I wrote a while back on student-led fundraisers. Start with a crowdfunding page such as FundMyTravel.
Note to parents: Not all travel programs are reputable. As with anything else, do your research. Make sure the company you're working with is safe and reputable.
It's important that students travel. It doesn't have to be all the time, but an experience here or there could potentially change their lives. Teens are under a lot of pressure from their schools, parents, peers, social media, and more. Give them an opportunity to take a step back from all of that and gain perspective, meet new people, embrace other cultures, and become active and engaged citizens.
If you have more travel resources for high school students please share!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my travel curriculum at my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. Most of the travel resources are free.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.