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Tulane's Costa Rica Program: Teaching Real-World Problem-Solving for the 21st Century

May 7, 2014 | ARTICLE BY Nicole Escarra

Tulane's Costa Rica ProgramIt is perhaps to be expected that Tulane, with its university-wide emphasis on "learning by doing," would create a study abroad program that enables its students to explore the real-world application of environmental studies in the tropics. But it may surprise some to see just how interdisciplinary the program is, featuring faculty whose expertise ranges from agriculture to international development. In Spring 2014, four faculty from the School of Science and Engineering participated in Tulane's newest semester abroad program in Costa Rica: professors George Flowers and Stephen Nelson, from the Earth and Environmental Sciences department, and Thomas Sherry and Sunshine Van Bael, representing the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. They were joined by Ludovico Feoli, executive director of the Center for Inter-American Policy, and Colin Crawford, executive director of the Payson Center for International Development.

The 15-week session focused on environmental studies in the tropics and took place at the Centro de Investigación y Adiestramiento Político y Administrativo (CIAPA), a Tulane-affiliated campus in San José, Costa Rica.

The location and focus of this program were determined by a confluence of factors. Tulane has been present at CIAPA since 1975, and the university took over campus administration and research coordination in 1999.

Costa Rica itself provides students with an ideal setting to study the environment, along with the issues faced by various stakeholders in regards to environmental policy and conservation. Professor Sunshine Van Bael listed just one of the reasons Costa Rica is a fitting location to study environmental policy.

"Costa Rica is really ahead of the ball when it comes to capitalizing on the development mechanisms that come out of the Kyoto Protocol," said Van Bael.

Stephen Nelson agreed with this view and added that the country’s physical landscape provided students with an excellent living laboratory. "It's really an ideal environment for students to study geology and tropical ecology," said Nelson.

In addition to Tulane's history at the CIAPA facility and the country's geography, faculty members from various fields at Tulane felt that studying environmental issues in Latin America would build on connections that naturally existed in the university.

The Costa Rica program offered five courses this spring, covering environmental policy, international development, tropical agroecosystems, conservation, and geology. The program's diverse offerings attracted seven students from a range of academic concentrations, from economics to molecular biology. Students focus on one course at a time, and each course is administered over a three-week period.

George Flowers and Stephen Nelson co-taught the program’s second course, educating students on the geology and geography of Costa Rica, with an emphasis on the creation of the country’s modern landscape. Flowers highlighted the importance of focusing on Costa Rica’s geology and geography early in the semester.

"By the time the students got through with our section of the program, they were well prepared to understand the hazards in Costa Rica," said Flowers. "It really set the stage for discussion of the energy aspects in any environmental conversations."

Thomas Sherry, who taught the course Tropical Conservation and Global Change, firmly believes that the interdisciplinary approach utilized at the Costa Rica program is necessary to equip students to deal with the problems society faces in the 21st century.

"We're not trained in most programs, as graduate students and otherwise," he said, "to do interdisciplinary kinds of thinking, and yet the problems that I am aware that threaten our environment are going to require an interdisciplinary approach."

Sherry elaborated, "For example, consider the proposed construction of the Nicaragua Canal. China is being talked about as a major funding agent. This project has environmental, economic, and geopolitical implications…this is the kind of thing we want students to be thinking about when they approach these issues."

Van Bael agreed with Sherry's assessment of the importance of interdisciplinary thinking.

"If you go on to be a researcher, there are so many opportunities that depend on your ability to work in different disciplines, to collaborate and cooperate," she said. "It's been a huge part of what I have had to do, and I have learned a lot from people who are not exactly in my field."

Van Bael’s course, Tropical Agroecosystems, provided students with a broad introduction to tropical agriculture, and brought in aspects of both the natural and social sciences.

"The diversity of the students' backgrounds was really fantastic. We had discussions that bridged from ecology and biology, to political and economic issues. It was fantastic to have a spectrum of students from all of those backgrounds," said Van Bael.

In addition to the curriculum's interdisciplinary nature, the SSE faculty also identified fieldwork as a critical component of the program. Excursions to places such as the Arenal Volcano National Park, farms, and research centers such as CATIE (an international research institute for agriculture) and the EARTH University, provided students with the opportunity to see how the knowledge acquired in the classroom applies to the real world.

"There's no substitute for being in the field," said Sherry. "You will learn about and remember things in a way you wouldn't normally."

The Costa Rica program appears to be poised for growth and even greater success. After teaching their courses for the first time, each SSE professor articulated the desire to adapt and modify their course to better complement their colleagues' fields of study.

Sherry emphasized his view of the program's role in equipping students to address issues faced across the globe.

"I tend to gravitate more and more, in my own research and thinking, to interdisciplinary ways of understanding humans, the planet, and the problems we face," said Sherry. "So I see this program as a microcosm for having students engage in the kinds of problem-solving that we really need outside of academe."

Learn More About Tulane's Costa Rica Program

School of Science and Engineering, 201 Lindy Boggs Center, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5764 sse@tulane.edu