Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet
Semester Program in Costa Rica
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 and is offered through 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.
Research Methods 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 of the Tropics
Duke University - ENVIRON 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 - SPANISH 92A
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:
6:30 am Breakfast.
8:00 am 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!
12:00 pm Lunch back at the station or on the sites you’re visiting.
1:00 pm Afternoon activities, lectures, and day visits.
6:00 pm Dinner.
7:00pm Occasionally, an evening journal club or other academic activity, but also free time or study time.
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, Panama
Bocas del Toro is an island archipelago just over the border from Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast of Panama. We will reside at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation field station, which is a rustic beachfront site on the north side of Colon Island that gives us 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 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.
Brian Folt, Ph. D. ,
Ph. D. Biology. Auburn University
Dr. Folt studies the ecology and conservation of amphibians and reptiles in tropical and temperate environments. Learn more about his research projects at brianfolt.com!
Tuition and Financial Aid
Tuition, room and board
The course costs are detailed below:
- Tuition for 2017-18 Academic Year: $25,860
- 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
- 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!!!
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, and follow us on Instagram, @ots_abroad.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 contact the Enrollment Management team at email@example.com 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 be at least 18 years of age, no less than a sophomore in academic standing, and 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. 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 in Costa Rica or South Africa. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.