This program trains you to become a tropical biologist by following OTS’ long tradition of conducting relevant field research and engaging with ecosystems and culture in Costa Rica. Through four interconnected courses that introduce you to biomes across Costa Rica, you will become versed in skills and knowledge necessary to address contemporary issues in conservation and ecology. You will focus on tropical ecology, environmental preservation, research skills and Spanish in OTS’ dynamic research stations, La Selva, Palo Verde, and Las Cruces, as well as other forest and coastal sites. OTS has been introducing students to ecology and conservation in Costa Rica since 1963 and has trained well over 10,000 students throughout the years, many of whom have gone on to work as scientists and conservationists.
The OTS education model is based on introducing students to science by conducting timely research mentored by compassionate faculty and visiting experts. The networks you will form through OTS will last throughout your career, and the experience you gain will prepare you to ask your own research questions and make insightful contributions to conservation in a changing world. Beyond science, you will be welcomed into Costa Rican culture while living with a host-family during a three-week Spanish immersion program. The combination of applied studies, exposure to diverse ecosystems, and introduction to language and culture will make this a truly formative semester.
The Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet program is comprised of four core courses. Each course is worth 4 credit hours accredited through Auburn University at Montgomery.
BIOL 4423, Fundamentals of Tropical Biology (4 credits)
In this experiential course you will explore tropical biology through engaging in the scientific process in some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. You will come to recognize ecological processes and patterns through research and exploration of a wide variety of Costa Rica’s ecosystems, including lowland tropical forests, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, páramo, wetlands, and coastal systems. By moving through these diverse habitats, you will learn how biomes and ecosystems are shaped by geology, climate, and biotic interactions. Observing each field site with a keen ecological perspective will afford you a truly unique opportunity to become versed in top-down and bottom-up forces shaping tropical ecosystems.
BIOL 4942, Directed Field Experience (4 credits)
This course presents you with an ecological toolbox you will rely on during the semester and as you advance in your studies and careers. Through conducting research at OTS stations and other field sites in Costa Rica, you will gain invaluable experience in tropical biology, participating in the entire scientific process from study design to data collection to the effective communication of your results.
One of the major benefits of an OTS education comes from developing networks with other tropical biologists, and your participation in faculty-guided field projects (FFP), is the basis of this. You will have the unique experience to conduct research with invited experts; under their mentorship, you will work in small groups to design and complete studies on topics ranging from amphibian decline to forest restoration. Your semester will cumulate in a research project of your design, mentored by OTS faculty, allowing you the unique experience of addressing your own scientific question in the tropics.
ENSC 4413, Environmental Science and Policy in the Tropics (4 credits)
In this course, you will focus on environmental issues affecting Costa Rica and the tropics broadly. Through field trips and conversations with local practitioners, you will become deeply engaged in the social and scientific aspects of environmental preservation. Field trips will include visits to banana and coffee plantations, managed wetlands, forest fragments, and private farms and reserves. We will incorporate your Spanish skills by asking you to give brief presentations in Spanish – to the best of your ability. Cultural norms have a huge influence on environmental stewardship, and you will develop a nuanced perspective on your own engagement with the environment through your immersion experience in Costa Rica.
SPAN 1000, Study Abroad Spanish (4 credits)
You will spend three weeks studying Spanish in an immersion program including a homestay with a Costa Rican family. Whether you start the course with rudimentary or more advanced Spanish, you will gain knowledge and fluency through classroom time and constant practice. The program will help you expand your vocabulary and develop conversational skills, strengthen your grammar, and introduce you to social, cultural, and environmental issues in Costa Rica. Classroom time will be entirely in Spanish, and language lessons will focus on themes that will help you gain familiarity with daily customs and culture.
OTS semester programs are open to all undergraduate students in good standing with their home institution who are at least 18 years of age and have a minimum 2.7 GPA. Students applying to the Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet program must have completed the equivalent of one year (or two semesters) of college-level biology (or related coursework). Spanish language experience is not required. If you are unsure if you meet these requirements, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Las Cruces Biological Station
Las Cruces Biological Station is located on the south Pacific slope of Costa Rica near San Vito, only a few kilometers from the Panamanian border. At 1,100 meters, Las Cruces is the site of the world famous Wilson Botanical Garden, which houses 10 hectares of native and imported tropical plants, including bromeliads, palms, heliconias, and orchids. The site also protects 256 hectares of forest, with a rich diversity of plants, mammals, birds, and other important groups. Near the station is a collection of forest patches that have been an important site for research on the biological dynamics of fragments. This is a very important site for research in restoration ecology. Las Cruces has been formally incorporated into the international Amistad Biosphere Reserve. San Vito was founded in the 1950s by Italian immigrants. The primary economic activity of the region is coffee cultivation. Las Cruces is one of our most comfortable field sites. Available services include phone, fax, e-mail, laundry, and hot water.
Cuerici / Cerro de la Muerte
Cuerici is located at an altitude of 2,900 meters near Cerro de la Muerte in the Talamanca Mountain Range of Costa Rica. This small farm and biological station includes about 200 hectares of primary forest bordering the Rio Macho Forest Reserve and Chirripo National Park. Both of these protected areas mark the northwestern edge of La Amistad Conservation Area. Ancient, tall oaks dominate the forest at this altitude (primarily Quercus costarricenses and Q. copeyensis). Some of these trees are estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old. Near Cerro de la Muerte, at 3,200 meters, the trees give way to high-altitude paramo, a unique tropical ecosystem specially adapted to temperatures that fluctuate rapidly between warm, sunny days and nights below freezing. Páramo is dominated by shrub land where drainage is adequate and by bogs where drainage is poor. The station at Cuerici is a large, rustic cabin complete with a large fireplace and a wood burning stove to keep visitors warm during the exceptionally chilly nights. The surrounding oak forests, which were heavily exploited for charcoal, are an important habitat for the resplendent quetzal. The region produces organic blackberry, much of which is exported to the United States. Students are housed together in a large dormitory. Fax and e-mail are not available at Cerro de la Muerte. Phone access is available only for emergencies. Warm water is usually available. Cuerici is cold, so don’t forget to bring warm clothes!
Palo Verde Biological Station
Through an agreement with the Costa Rica National Park Service, OTS maintains this field station within the Palo Verde National Park. This reserve, located in the northwestern region of the country, lies on the boundary between an extensive marsh and seasonally dry forest underlain with limestone. It protects part of the lower Tempisque River Basin, the largest river drainage of the historic province of Guanacaste. Palo Verde is recognized internationally as one of the most important wetland habitats for nesting waterfowl. It is also a great place to see monkeys, deer, lizards, and crocodiles. Several trails lead to lookout points with incredible scenic vistas, favorite spots for watching the sunset. The park is currently impacted by rice and sugar cane cultivation in surrounding wetlands. It is also unique among Costa Rican parks in that domestic animals (namely, cattle) have been incorporated into its management program; a somewhat controversial decision that we will have a closer look at when we are there. The field station is rustic. Services available at Palo Verde include phone, fax, e-mail, and laundry. Palo Verde is the buggiest of our sites, particularly in the wet season, so be prepared for lots of mosquitoes while we are there!
San Pedro, San José
San Pedro is located next to San José, the capital city of Costa Rica. San Pedro is a densely populated, urban center. It is also the location of the University of Costa Rica, where OTS’ Costa Rican offices are located. As a university town, San Pedro provides many resources for undergraduate students, including Internet cafés, restaurants, libraries, and bookstores. San Pedro will be your home during three weeks of Spanish at the Costa Rican Language Academy (CRLA). CRLA houses students with Costa Ricans (one student per family). In many cases, students quickly become part of the warm and vibrant social life that characterizes the Costa Rican family. During the week, while classes are in session, student activities revolve around San Pedro. On weekends, however, students are free to travel and may take advantage of hiking and camping opportunities in the surrounding hills or may venture further from the Central Valley to enjoy the nearby beaches of Jaco and Manuel Antonio. Services available in San Pedro include telephone, fax, laundry, and hot water. E-mail is most readily accessible at the language institute, at the OTS offices, or at Internet cafés.
Monteverde is a classic site for viewing and learning about tropical cloud forest. We will be staying at the rustic San Gerardo Biological station, approximately an hour hike from the nearest road. The station is a large cabin-style residence; students are housed in dormitories on the second floor. San Gerardo Biological Station has no e-mail access, limited electricity and laundry must be hand washed and dried on a line. Telephone access is available only in the event of an emergency.
Bocas del Toro, Panamá
Bocas del Toro is an island archipelago just over the border from Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast of Panamá. You will reside at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation field station, which is a rustic beach-front site on the north side of Colon Island that gives students access to low and mid impact coral reefs as well as a sandy intertidal zone. Laundry and internet services are available but limited, and telephone access is for emergency use only.
La Selva Biological Station
Located in the Caribbean lowlands, La Selva is OTS’ largest field station and is one of the best-known tropical research sites in the world. The station protects approximately 1,600 hectares of primary and secondary tropical rain forest. It averages 4,000 millimeters (over 13 feet) of rainfall a year. This lush environment facilitates the existence of thousands of species of plants and animals, making La Selva a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, including toucans, monkeys, ocelots, agoutis, peccaries, and the endangered green macaw. Two major rivers, the Sarapiquí and the Puerto Viejo, border la Selva. These rivers form part of the San Juan River Basin. La Selva is connected via a biological corridor with Braulio Carrillo National Park, which contains 46,000 hectares of forestland and ascends almost 3,000 meters in elevation to Volcán Barva, which overlooks the town of Heredia in the Central Valley. La Selva has an extensive trail system, lots of lab space, and is, in general, a pretty busy place. (The station can sleep over 100 people.) Important crops grown in the area surrounding La Selva include banana and heart of palm. Services available at La Selva include phone, fax, and e-mail. Showers may or may not have hot water, and students have access to laundry machines. Housing consists of small dorm rooms with up to six students each.
*Sites are subject to change
The program will be fully engaging and will challenge you to develop skills in field biology. There are campus-like instructions (readings, lectures, discussion groups, etc.), there will also be orientation walks to learn about important plants, animals, diseases, local customs; perform field projects with long hours; and take field trips to health facilities, towns, indigenous reservations, research facilities, banana plantations, logging sites, etc. There is one rest day per week, usually Sundays. In the field, your typical daily schedule may look like this:
8:00am, Field activities, lectures, day visits: Sometimes these activities will take us to Primary care facilities, hospitals, indigenous territories, forests or remote towns in the countryside. These activities will invariably require closed shoes or rubber boots, water, and your field notebook. Sometimes we will visit health facilities in cities and towns, and you will need to wear either casual or more formal attires. These visits are often the best part of the day!
12:00pm, Lunch: Back at the station or on the sites you’re visiting.
1:00pm, Afternoon activities, lectures, and day visits
7:00pm: Occasionally, an evening journal club or other academic activity, but also free time or study time.
Non-resident of Alabama
Resident of Alabama
Tuition and fees cover:
- Room and board at hotels, homestays, and research stations
- Local travel to program sites
- Participation of many local and international tropical scientists, and other experts
- Laundry costs
Tuition and fees do not cover:
- International travel
- Independent travel
- Personal spending
Tuition & Fees 2018-19
OTS is committed to providing opportunities to all eligible students interested in participating in our programs. We make every effort possible to ensure that financial obstacles are not the primary reason a qualified student cannot participate in one of our programs. We make scholarship applications available to students upon acceptance into an OTS program. We have a limited amount of scholarship funds available so, the earlier you apply, the better your chances of receiving an award. If you have questions, please contact the Enrollment Management team at email@example.com.
External Scholarships and Opportunities
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program
The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, thereby gaining skills critical to our national security and economic competitiveness. The Gilman Scholarship is open to U.S. citizens and undergraduate students, who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university, in order to participate in study and intern abroad programs worldwide. They award grants of up to $5,000 for traditionally underrepresented students in education abroad as well as students in the sciences, and nontraditional study abroad locations.
Fund for Education Abroad
The Fund for Education Abroad (FEA) invests in promising students with financial need who wish to study abroad. Scholarships range from $1,250 – $10,000. The student must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, be currently enrolled as an undergraduate at a college or university in the United States, the study abroad program must be eligible for credit at the student’s home institution, and the program must be at least 4 weeks in country. FEA encourages first generation, minority, and community college students to apply.
Additional Funding Sources
The Vira I. Heinz (VIH) Program for Women in Global Leadership
Corinne Jeannine Schillings Foundation Scholarship to Study Abroad
Boren Awards for International Study
Garden Club of America (GCA)
Phi Kappa Phi Study Abroad Grant
Fund My Travel
Tara Massad, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Tulane University
Dr. Massad is fascinated by tropical forest diversity, particularly the plants and insects that comprise the multicellular majority of that diversity. Plants are fed upon by insect herbivores, and, in response, they defend themselves with a stunning array of secondary chemicals. However, what may be bad for an individual plant may be considered good for a forest at large, and herbivory helps structure tropical forest diversity. Insects don’t perceive their host plants as taxonomic units, however; they detect them through chemical cues. The chemically mediated interactions between plants and insects and the resulting increases in species diversity are therefore central to Dr. Massad’s research. She is studying secondary chemistry metabolomics to determine relationships between chemical diversity, herbivory and plant taxonomic diversity.
Dr. Massad is also deeply concerned with conservation and restoration. She has conducted reforestation studies in the Neotropics and has helped monitor the recovery of large mammal populations in Mozambique. Fostering environmental awareness and teaching are also very important to her, and she teaches courses including tropical ecology, conservation biology, and environmental science and is excited to introduce students to fieldwork and conservation.
Amanda Wendt, Ph.D.
Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Amanda is the Education and Research Liaison at La Selva Research Station. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, where she studied tropical forest regeneration and ecology. She has also worked extensively as a researcher, professor and educator, restoration project manager, conservation professional, land manager, and mentor. Prior to joining OTS, Amanda directed a wildlife refuge in Sarapiquí, the province in which OTS’ La Selva research station resides.
Amanda’s interests include forest landscape restoration, integrated landscape management, plant-animal interactions (especially mammals and seed dispersal), patterns of seedling regeneration, forest disturbance, resilience, and how ecosystem health affects human well-being. She volunteers in Costa Rica with the Biodiversity Partnership Mesoamerica, San Juan-La SElva Biological Corridor, and Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center.
Housing & Meals
The OTS program differs socially and culturally from your typical on-campus life in several interesting and important ways. First and foremost, of course, you will be living in a small Latin American country. In general, Costa Ricans (“Ticos” and “Ticas”) are warm, friendly, and welcoming. You can expect to develop good friendships and not only learn about Costa Ricans but also reflect more on your own culture by comparison. Since you are a guest in Costa Rica, you need to be sensitive to and respectful of Costa Rican customs, but learning how those customs differ from your own is an exciting part of the study abroad experience.
Although you may have one or two roommates at your home campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 12-25 other students and two to five professors or field assistants. This means communication and respect will be crucial. Everyone needs to be as open, honest, and cooperative as possible. There also needs to be 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 this one. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and a good sense of humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in the program. By living and working with the same people for 15 weeks, you will undoubtedly develop a number of very close friendships. The combination of uncomfortable (being wet, muddy, and tired) and wonderful (watching iguanas sunning on the bridge at La Selva) situations creates great images and memories.
Passport & Visa Information
You must have a valid Passport to travel to Costa Rica. It is important that the passport does not expire within 6 months of your last day in 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 programs we will provide any information necessary (within reason) to help with the visa application.
Please keep in mind that visa application processes 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 will receive a second 90-day tourist visa when the course enters Costa Rica again following a visit to Panama, and that second visa will last until the end of the program. Remember that according to current immigration laws in Costa Rica, you MUST leave the country for at least 72 hours when your visa expires. Students planning to stay in Costa Rica after the program end date need to take this into account.
Please contact the Enrollment Management team at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this.
Health & Safety
OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being, we do not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. We monitor 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 on-site orientation program upon arrival. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at email@example.com.