Costa Rica’s biology course enlightens lives

For bioscience professors Brian Wisenden and Dan McEwen, the tropical field biology course offered every spring is an indescribable 10-day trip experiencing Costa Rica’s sights, sounds, smells and people.
Last year was McEwen’s first time traveling to Central America, so as an ecologist Costa Rica was a great opportunity to experience first hand learning.
“I teach a lot about ecological principles, and we talk about in the classes sort of in theory how unique the tropics are,” McEwen said. “But to go there, and see the ecology and the biology was really overwhelming.”
To Wisenden, no learning experience beats traveling to a foreign country.
“You can watch a TV show or a movie about a place, but it’s not the same as smelling it and feeling the heat and having, basically, these emotional responses to the situation you’re in,” Wisenden said. “The food, the music, the cultural mores of the people there that’s hard to put that on a list of things to learn. It’s an experience, and that is hard to convey.”
Wisenden lived in Costa Rica with his wife while he completed his doctoral work. The tropical field biology course began in 2002 and was offered every two years when a deciding factor was adequate enrollment.
The course has gained so much interest, it is offered every year and is currently full for the spring 2014 semester, with the maximum 18 students. There are no prerequisites needed, and students don’t have to be majoring in biology to enroll in the course.
“Last year we had a good cohort of students who were not biology students, so that was cool seeing they could come and still be interested in biology and get a lot out of it,” McEwen said. “Really, I think the trip develops a different perspective about how global relationships work. it can be a life changing experience if you let it be.”

From January until spring break, students read articles and meet weekly to learn specifics about Costa Rica’s biology, ecotourism and reserves.
The itinerary for spring break 2014 consists of flying into Liberia and traveling to Bagaces, specifically because it is authentic Costa Rica without tourists. People who live in Bagaces are taking care of their families, working their jobs and going to the disco on Saturday night, Wisenden said. They are not catering to tourists.
“That plurality of humanity is important,” Wisenden said. “They have their family. They have hopes and dreams and disappointments just like anybody does.”
From Bagaces, the group travels to the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve, UGA Ecolodge San Luis, Monteverde cloud forest, ecolodge San Miguel in Cabo Blanco and Guayacan before flying back to Fargo. Students experience different models of conservation and ecotourism in Costa Rica, which are factors that make this country truly unlike any other in the world.
“The history – political and social– have created the circumstances here in this little tiny stretch where this kind of system can evolve,” Wisenden said. “That’s the course. So, it’s a little about biology, but it’s also the conditions that exist kind of by happenstance, really, that make Costa Rica this wonderful place.”

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