The course that started it all! Since 1963, this OTS course has trained ecologists and evolutionary biologists using an active learning approach, which engages students in a fun and fast-paced research environment.
This OTS “fundamentals course” is an intensive, field-based experience in tropical biology for graduate students. With guidance from expert scientists, students will gain experience in critical thinking, research design, data analysis, analytical tools, science communication, ecological modeling, and collaborative research—all in the beautiful tropical setting of Costa Rica.
We guarantee you will come away from the course a better scientist with new skills and ideas to carry into your future research and career.
Course participants that complete the course successfully are eligible for pilot and research awards. The awards give students the opportunity to conduct research projects at OTS stations.
Course participants are eligible for small grants to support short-term (pilot research) or longer (research fellowships) research projects at OTS stations. These projects begin either immediately following the course or up to a year after the course end. For more information on this visit our Fellowship page.
Students will get extensive experience designing and conducting group and individual research projects across a range of tropical ecosystems. A large emphasis will be placed on:
Analytical tools for ecological research
Scientific communication and public outreach
Through hands-on activities, students will gain experience with diverse perspectives in ecological research, statistical analyses, and science communication, including:
Ecological modeling and spatial analyses
Intensive practice in scientific writing
Digital video and sound analyses
Uni- and multivariate statistics
Digital and media-based communication (blogging, podcasts, and short films)
An example of a film created by a group of students during the 2016 course: Beyond Survival and another from the 2015 program: Force Unseen
Our courses are designed to make the most of students’ time with OTS. Our days will usually start at 6:00 am with breakfast, and we will begin the workday around 7:00 am. Lunch will be at 12:00 pm and can be in the field, depending on the circumstances. Dinner is served at 6:00 pm, and there can be lectures/activities after dinner as well.
Some days, where either faculty-led or independent projects are being carried out, you may be out in the field all day, sweaty, and covered in mosquito bites, while other days you may spend the entire time in a classroom learning about how to write effective grant proposals for research funding or the technicalities of making a video/radio segment for communicating science to a general audience. Some days will have a mixture of activities. Expect a diversity of activities, and expect unforeseen circumstances and changes in schedule.
Participants should not purchase their airline tickets until six weeks prior to the start of the course. In the case of low enrollment or other unforeseen circumstances, a course may be canceled up to six weeks ahead of the start date.
For its relatively small size, Costa Rica has an incredible diversity of ecosystems. Students will visit field sites representing most of the major ecosystems in the country, ranging from wet forest to dry forest, low elevation to high elevation, and terrestrial to marine habitats. We will spend time at all three OTS research stations in addition to a number of other sites described below.
La Selva Research Station
A large and well-known research station on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, La Selva has over 1,500 hectares of lowland tropical wet forest and connects to Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Las Cruces Research Station
This station has a world-class plant collection in the Wilson Botanical Garden and an associated 160-hectare tract of old-growth mid-elevation forest. Las Cruces is surrounded by agricultural landscapes, ideal for research on fragmentation and restoration ecology.
Palo Verde Research Station
Located in the heart of Palo Verde National Park in the Guanacaste province, it is surrounded by semi-deciduous tropical dry forest, an endangered tropical ecosystem. A seasonal freshwater wetland, designated as an international conservation (RAMSAR) site in 1991, lies in front of the station and attracts abundant waterfowl.
Course costs exceed $7,600 per student. Students from OTS non-member institutions are charged $7,600, whereas students from OTS member institutions are charged $5,900.
Additional scholarships may be available for students with demonstrated financial needs. The tuition includes all lodging and meals, transportation during the course, and all course materials. Personal expenses such as laundry, mail, entertainment, international travel, insurance, medical expenses, etc., are not covered. Also, students planning additional time in Costa Rica before or after the course should allow $30-40 per day.
Course fees are due in full four weeks prior to start of course; the first $500 constitutes a non-refundable deposit.
If you are interested in being considered for an additional scholarship, please make sure to include a request for a partial scholarship along with the rest of the required documents. The letter should outline your financial situation, previous scholarships/grants if any, and the amount you are seeking from outside sources to cover the costs of the course. The letter will help us assess your situation individually and determine your eligibility for a partial scholarship if you are selected for the course.
Please note that scholarships are awarded and applied only to the tuition/course cost. They cannot be applied in any other way. For example, scholarships cannot be applied toward travel expenses. Although we may be able to award a partial scholarship, we recommend that you seek outside funding for the course through your own means, such as applying for grants from your home department or organizing small fundraisers.
Edgardo Arévalo, Ph.D.
Edgardo is a biologist interested in soundscape ecology, avian ecology and conservation. Over the last 14 years, Edgardo has been teaching tropical ecology and environmental science to abroad US programs in Costa Rica and has served as a guest professor for OTS graduate courses for more than 20 years. Currently, Edgardo works as an interim professor in the Biology Department at the University of Costa Rica, teaching landscape ecology and habitat restoration.
Emilia Triana, M.Sc.
Emilia is a passionate tropical biologist dedicated to better understand ecology, behavior, and evolution of what she calls the miniature world unknown by many people: the world of terrestrial arthropods. She did her undergraduate and Master’s program at the University of Costa Rica, where she studied acoustic behavior, ecology and morphology to reveal that what was considered one species, was actually three different species of treehoppers. Emilia is also passionate about teaching in-field programs, where she believes the hands-on experiences lead the way to a better understanding of the ecosystems and how to research any part within them at a micro or macro scale. She has taught at high school, undergraduate, and postgraduate university levels, in English and Spanish, and across the small and hyper-diverse Costa Rica land, with organizations both from C.R. and the U.S.
Housing & Meals
It is important to recognize that the OTS program differs from your typical on-campus life in a few ways. Though you may have prior experience of living with one or two roommates on campus, during the course you will be living closely with 10–15 others. You will share bathrooms and common areas, and it will sometimes be difficult to find personal space. This means communication and respect will be crucial. We also need to have sincere respect for one another, regardless of different opinions and lifestyles. This includes respect for privacy, respect for rules and regulations, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of field-based programs such as ours. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and a good sense of humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program.
As OTS students, you must be proactive in asking the questions (and finding the answers) that are important to you. You must also be ready to share your own knowledge and experience with the rest of the group.
Passport & Visa Information
You must have a valid passport to travel to Costa Rica. It is important that the passport does not expire within six months of entering Costa Rica. If you are NOT a citizen of a North American or European country, you will probably need a special visa to get into Costa Rica. We recommend that you contact your respective consulate or embassy services to determine if you need a visa to travel to Costa Rica. It is important to take into account the requirements to get a visa approved before you apply for one of our courses. If you are accepted into one of our courses, we will provide any information necessary, within reason, to help with the visa application. Please keep in mind that the visa application process can take several months, depending on the country of issue. For more information on this topic please visit http://www.migracion.go.cr/extranjeros/visas.html.
U.S. citizens entering Costa Rica are automatically granted a 90-day tourist visa. Students planning to stay in Costa Rica after the program end date need to take this into account.
Review the requisites about traveling and entering Costa Rica in the following links:
OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being and does not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. OTS monitors national and international events that might affect our students. Five decades of risk assessment, emergency response, and crisis resolution have enabled OTS to maximize student safety and security. All students participate in an onsite orientation program upon arrival in Costa Rica.