Undergraduate Opportunities - Organization for Tropical Studies

Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica

  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica
  •  Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester in Costa Rica

Program Details

Where:Costa Rica

When: Spring: Jan 26 - May 12, 2015
Fall: Aug 24-Dec 8, 2015

Duration: 15 weeks

Accreditation:4 courses – 16 credits

Language: English

Deadline:Fall: April 1, on rolling basis

Spring: November 1, on rolling basis


Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet- Semester in Costa Rica Overview

By visiting a variety of ecosystems and through a series of case studies in Costa Rica and Panama, this program provides students with a strong foundation in the scientific, social, political, and economic aspects of tropical ecology, natural resource management and conservation. In addition to traditional lectures, discussions and lab activities, students learn by leaving the classroom to get into the field, learn by doing, by observing and by talking with community members. 
Students complete several research projects in the field alongside ecologists from around the world and will be mentored by program faculty through 2 independent projects. Additionally, students are immersed in Costa Rican culture during a three-week homestay in the San José area.


The Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet program is comprised of four core courses. Each course is worth 4 credit hours, accredited by Duke University.

Fundamentals of Tropical Biology
Duke University - BIO 280A

This course integrates classroom and field instruction to introduce students to the fundamental principles of tropical biology and the natural history of local plants and animals. The ecological complexity of the tropics, the patterns of species diversity and the types of species interactions that characterize these systems are discussed in detail.

Field Research in Tropical Biology
Duke University - BIO 281LA

This course introduces you to research design, field methods, and basic data analysis in a tropical context. Hypothesis testing and statistical analysis, including orientation to basic software packages, are emphasized in the course. Students participate in faculty-guided field problems which require working together in small groups. Students also design, implement, and analyze their own field projects. The course takes an iterative approach to teaching research design.

Rather than working on one or two long projects, students participate in multiple shorter projects.  While learning to ask and answer scientific questions, students also learn about the ecology of the organisms they work with.

Environmental Science and Policy in the Tropics
Duke University - ENV 282A

This course encourages students to evaluate the conservation and management of natural resources using tools and perspectives relevant to both the natural and social sciences. Students are introduced to issues and problems in environmental science and conservation biology under three main themes: 1) Social and Political History of Costa Rica, 2) Tropical Ecosystem Management, and the 3) Global Environment.

Culture and Language in Costa Rica
Duke University - SP92A

This course is intended for students that have a basic to intermediate background of the Spanish language. The chief goals are to expand vocabulary and conversational skills, strengthen grammar, and introduce key social, cultural and environmental issues in Costa Rica. Students discuss specific topics of the Costa Rican society and learn about the different forms of the Latin American and Costa Rican culture. The course, taught entirely in Spanish, introduces new vocabulary and emphasizes grammatical rules within the context of specific themes chosen to enhance students’ familiarity of daily customs or cultural institution that shape daily life. Classroom discussions supplemented by listening, writing and reading exercises are the main instructional vehicles used to increase language skills. Activities like cooking, music and dance, and lectures on Costa Rican history and sociology are also an integral feature of the course.


Our program is labor intensive. Though we do give campus-like instruction (assigned readings, lectures, discussion groups, etc.), we also take orientation walks to learn important plants, animals, disease, 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:

6:30am   Breakfast.

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.

1:00 pm   Afternoon activities, lectures, and day visits.

6:00pm   Dinner.

7:00pm   Occasionally, an evening journal club or other academic activity, but also free time or study time.

Schedule of Site Visits*

August 25 San José (Central Valley)  
August 26 Visit to OTS offices at the University of Costa Rica, San Pedro  
August 27 – September 9 Las Cruces Biological Station, San Vito Premontane forest
September 10 – 13 Cuericí High elevation oak forest, Páramo
September 14 – October 4 La Selva Biological Station, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí Lowland wet forest
October 5 – 24 Costa Rica Language Academy, San Pedro  
October 25 – November 1 Mid-term Break **  
November 2 Students to Homestay  
November 3 - 8 Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, Bocas del Toro, Panama Island forest and marine coral reef
November 9 - 14 San Gerardo Biological Station, Monteverde Cloud forest, Elfin forest
November 15 – December 5 Palo Verde Biological Station, Palo Verde National Park Dry forest, freshwater seasonal wetlands, Mangroves
December 6 - 7 Closing activity TBA
December 8 San José  
December 9 Students return to the U.S.  

Important Information for Fall Schedule

*The above schedule of site visits is subject to change. If you would like an up-to-date program itinerary, please contact Administrative Assistant Kattia Méndez.

** Before making reservations for Mid-term Break, please confirm the dates with Kattia Méndez


The two resident faculty for this program are experienced ecologists with decades of experience in field teaching between them. As a student in this program, you will learn, eat, work, laugh, and travel together and get to know each other very well. Students generally stay in contact with their OTS professors for years after the program.

J. Mauricio García-C, M.Sc.,

M.Sc.Biology. Universidad de Costa Rica

Mr. García studies plant-animal interactions between weevils and palms. He has also worked on insect behavior, forest seed dynamics in the cloud forest and pest management in sugar cane plantations.

Erika Deinert, Ph.D.,

Ph.D. Population Biology. University of Texas, Austin

Dr. Deinert studies sexual selection and population ecology in a tropical butterfly, Heliconius hewitsoni. She has also studied the behavioral ecology of wild turkeys and poison- dart frogs. In addition, she has worked on evaluating butterfly farming as a cottage industry.

Tuition and Financial Aid

Tuition, room and board

The course costs are detailed below:

  • Tuition for OTS semester program: $23,825
  • Program fee: $1,850
  • Duke lifetime transcript fee: $40 (does not apply to Duke students)

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
  • Incidentals
  • Personal spending
  • Note: Costs for the school year will be announced in late May of each year.


OTS is committed to providing opportunities to all eligible students interested in participating in our programs. We make scholarship applications available to students upon acceptance into an OTS program and offer limited funding on a rolling basis. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium colleges and universities have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered. We have dedicated a substantial amount of funding to provide partial scholarships to students who need financial support. APPLY EARLY!!!

Note: Costs for the school year will be announced in late May of each year.

Application Process

We will make the application available two semesters prior to the semester in which you wish to participate.

Apply Now

“Like” our Facebook page www.facebook.com/OTSAbroad ) to be notified when the application becomes available.

We have a rolling admissions policy, so we will review your application as soon as you complete it. This means that the program may fill BEFORE the application deadline. APPLY EARLY!

To participate in the Spring Semester program, you must apply no later than November 1st. To participate in the Fall Semester program, you must apply no later than April 1st.

If you are interested in a semester for which the deadline has passed, please contact us for availability at .

Career Options

Once you have completed the OTS semester program you are part the OTS family - a family that includes not just tropical ecologists and resource managers, but professionals and students in dozens of disciplines. Because OTS courses are recognized for their academic rigor, and because of a network of alumni who all understand the OTS experience, you will find that your OTS experiences give you a head start in many future applications and endeavors. In addition, OTS has funds for which alumni can apply to pursue continued or new research at our OTS stations. Faculty, staff and former students can also help put you in touch with others in the OTS network.

Accommodations & 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.

In addition, while you may have one or two roommates on campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 15-25 other students and 2 to 5 professors and course assistants. Again, you can expect to form strong and life-long friendships. The combination of experiences that are uncomfortable (wet, muddy, tired), wacky (a bunch of Gringos on the dance floor), challenging (yes, you can make it through the mangrove forest!), wonderful (watching monkeys while eating lunch), and truly amazing (interacting with people from all sorts of social backgrounds in very different settings) creates great memories that you will share with your fellow participants well beyond the end of the semester. To make this possible communication and respect will be crucial. All of us need to be as open, honest and cooperative as possible. This includes respect for privacy, for rules and regulations, for different opinions and lifestyles, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of field-based programs. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and good humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program. Schedule changes can lead to wonderful - or hilarious – experiences in the field!

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 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 visa application processes can take several months depending on the country of issue. For more information on this topic please visit


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 consult OTS if you have any questions about this


OTS semester programs are open to all undergraduate students in good standing with their home institution who have at a least a 2.7 GPA. Students applying to the Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet Semester must have completed the equivalent of one year of college-level biology. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered.

Health and Safety

OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being and does not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. In cooperation with the Duke University Global Education Office for Undergraduates (GEO), OTS monitors national and international events that might affect our students. Nearly 5 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 in Costa Rica or South Africa. For our most current safety information, please visit the Duke GEO website at www.global.duke.edu/geo or contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at .