St. Vrain students journey from source to sea in Costa Rica

A wide shadow emerges from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. As it moves closer, its giant wings come into focus and as it soars onward to reveal itself to the dark shapes bobbing up and down above. On the surface, a group of snorkelers look on as the spotted eagle ray comes forward to dance alongside the group. For these snorkelers – a group of St. Vrain students – this is just one of many extraordinary moments on their 10 day experiential learning adventure from source to sea in Costa Rica.

A Journey of Science Discovery

In June, 17 students and three educators from middle and high schools across the district embarked on a journey of science and cultural discovery to explore two of our planet’s most dynamic and important ecosystems - Costa Rica’s Monteverde cloud forest and Pacific marine environment. While not an offical SVVSD sponsored trip (it was organized through the Global Travel Alliance), St. Vrain students were able to experience the world of scientific inquiry and fieldwork first hand.

“The Source to Sea learning expedition was some of the most authentic, in-the-field learning I have witnessed in my time as an educator,” said Jeremy Lacrosse, principal at Altona Middle School. “I was blown away by how engaged and excited the students were when they were talking with other scientists conducting their research at University of Georgia Costa Rica and on the Pacific Coast.”

Partnering Students with Researchers

Organized for sponsoring travel agency by Michael O’Toole, Science Coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools, students studied alongside scientists from the University of Georgia to explore ecology and biodiversity research topics in a rain forest ecosystem and interacted with environmental nonprofits to understand the special dynamics of mangrove and marine environments along the coast.

“Our goal was to set the stage and encourage young people to dream big by pairing them with researchers in the field,” said O’Toole. “Costa Rica provides great opportunity to do that because it is such a small country – we can explore the whole package from source to sea.”

For students, the experience framed environmental stewardship in a new way. A particular highlight was the macroinvertebrate study where students used the presence of key species to determine the overall health of the waterway.

“Students were enthralled as they waded up the waterway and collected all manner of freshwater invertebrate,” said Jessica Campbell, a science teacher at Altona Middle School. “We then took the samples back to the lab where we identified and categorized them into different pollution tolerant groups.”

From these experiences, students walked away with tangible plans they are excited to implement next year and throughout their education.

“The learning experience really worked for me because of it being hands-on and visual,” said Ashley Degen, a student at Westview Middle School. “I learned about how we influence nature and the effects it has. The anthropogenic effect on the reefs was massive and very interesting to see.”

Championing Women in Science

For the 14 female students on the trip, this was a special opportunity to engage with the leading role that women can play in conservation and ecosystem science.

“It was particularly impactful to watch the girls dialogue with professors and graduate students about the various paths that had led them to this place in life,” said Campbell. “The girls walked away from these experiences saying "this is what I want to do and now I know how to do it!"  You could see their eyes light up with excitement!”

Science Communication

In addition to observing and exploring, students were required to demonstrate what they learned through reflective writing and two webinar presentations.

“For students who just returned, we’ve tasked them to share their experience with their peers but also to go into elementary schools and share knowledge,” said O’Toole. “The webinar was the the first step - students were presenting the research to an audience of about 200 people across the globe.”

A Lasting Impact

Building on the success of this first year offering, O’Toole plans to continue exploring ways for more students to get involved. Altona Middle School is going even further to build this into a one-year program culminating in the visit to Costa Rica.

“For this upcoming year at Altona we will be developing a program for students to connect regularly with students and scientists in Costa Rica and become social entrepreneurs to help support the communities in Costa Rica and at home in the Longmont area,” said Lacrosse. “We hope to continue these international learning expeditions for our students.”

Reflections from the trip can be found on their group blog: http://www.sourcetoseacostarica.com.