Looking through a new lens: NNU students explore biology, culture and photography in Costa Rica

July 29, 2011, 12:18 pm

Like most summers at Northwest Nazarene University, the end of spring semester means the beginning of a number of international travel opportunities for students to earn credits while learning in a global classroom. One of these trips was led by professors Cossel, Tucker and Earwicker from NNU’s biology, art and cultural studies departments. Seeking to marry objectives from these three diverse programs, the instructors took a group of 20 students on an adventure of a lifetime to the beautiful country of Costa Rica.

Starting their journey in the lowlands, the team traveled up from the tropical beaches to the cloud forest and back again. Along the way they visited a coffee farm, a research institute and even stayed a night in the rain forest. Students had the opportunity to experience the wide spectrum of unique environments that Costa Rica has to offer and to learn more about themselves and God’s magnificent creation.

While the beaches were beautiful, the group didn’t spend long at sea level, but rather began making their way into the rainforest and up the mountain. Because they planned to cover so much ground and to be as close to nature as possible along the way, much of the trip was spent hiking—mostly by day but sometimes by night. Sophomore ecology major Maggie Radach shared that taking night hikes in the rain forest was one of the highlights of the trip.
“Walking in the dark forest with just our headlamps allowed us to focus on the amazing creatures one at a time and take everything in.” Other students were more reluctant but equally enthralled. Sophomore art major Autumn Tustin explained that the hand-sized spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlies were intimidating to some people both on the night hikes and as cabin mates when the group stayed overnight in the rainforest in an open air structure.

As they gained elevation, another stop was at the Quetzal Education Research Center (QERC). This center located right below the cloud forest is a joint venture between Southern Nazarene University and the Efrain Chacon Family and serves as a launching point for visiting researchers, students and faculty into the rain and cloud forests. The NNU students used this facility as home base for further study of the unique plants and animals, lighting and landscapes of the region.

Beyond QERC, the group made their way to the Mora Family Farm which served as another highlight of the trip. Here the team learned about sustainable living and experienced the hospitality of the local culture. The Mora Family Farm cultivates coffee beans as its primary crop, but produces practically everything else needed by the family. “They even grow over 56 types of plants used for herbal remedies,” noted Radach. The farm produces next to no trash and repurposes everything. “The Mora family lives at a level of sustainability that many in the U.S. strive for but few achieve. We were inspired to examine our own lives to determine what we can do to be better stewards of our resources,” said Radach.

After making their way back down to sea level, the students had an opportunity to explore the city. To facilitate interaction with the local community, the faculty gave each student a sum of money and encouraged them to haggle at the markets and eat the local fare. Their stop in the city allowed the students to immerse in the culture, language and customs of the people of Costa Rica.

Professor Ben Earwicker summed up the tour well saying, “Our trip to Costa Rica helped us all appreciate the diversity of ecology and culture in our hemisphere. Dr. Cossel’s guided explorations of lowland jungles, rain forests and cloud forests deepened our understanding of biology and ecology in the tropical environment. Students observed sustainable, organic farming at the Mora Family Farm and learned about tourism and its impact on the economy and environment of Costa Rica. In terms of language and culture, students demonstrated repeatedly their desire to engage others in conversation and fellowship, not merely as tourists, but as partners and friends. We were challenged to think about how our choices as travelers and consumers impact others, at home and abroad. Ultimately, this was a rewarding and thought-provoking trip for faculty and students alike.”

Despite living internationally and traveling extensively, Tustin believed this trip was unique from anything she had experienced before. “For me, it wasn’t just a trip to learn about biology and photography. I learned about myself, how to work with others and how spectacular this planet is. It was an opportunity I will not soon forget.”

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