03/30/09 - When Assistant Professors of Geography Chris Houser and Steve Quiring first learned of a proposed research and education center in the Costa Rican rainforest, they saw the potential to teach students about Physical Geography in effective and exciting ways.
Their vision became reality over spring break in March when they led 20 Texas A&M freshman on a trip to the 250-acre Casa Verde Reserve and were among the first to utilize the recently completed Soltis Center for Research and Education.
Donated by Charles Soltis, class of ’55, and his family, the Center is comprised of a 7,500 square foot academic building that features classroom, lab, and meeting space, and eight dormitories capable of housing up to 60 people.
The 20 lucky freshmen, who came from a variety of majors and colleges, enrolled in Geography 203 this spring semester with one caveat. Rather than attend the lab portion of the class on campus, they completed their lab requirement at the Center and learned physical geography as only work in the field can teach.
“Students did very similar exercises as what’s in the course lab manual, except they did it hands on in the field,” Houser explained. “So for instance, instead of just using river data like they would in a classroom lab, students measured the speed and amount of water flowing in the river. Instead of going out and surveying the quad, they surveyed a mountainside.”
The trip was available to students at a reduced cost, only $600, thanks to funding from a new University initiative to ensure that at least 25% of all students have an international experience before they graduate. Judged only by that guideline, the trip appears to have been a shining success.
“Fifteen of the twenty students who went on the trip had never even flown before,” Houser said.
“Looking at that kind of statistic makes you understand a little more clearly President Murano’s push for more students to travel abroad while they’re at A&M,” Quiring added. “A lot of our students are from towns that are only a couple of hundred miles from College Station, and they may or may not have ever traveled outside of Texas.”
The trip wasn’t all work. Quiring and Houser lined up an exciting itinerary of excursions that highlighted physical and cultural geography and the Costa Rican environment.
“The first trip that we did off the property was zip lining down through the canopy of the forest, and then we took a horseback tour in the afternoon,” Houser said. “We also spent an entire day visiting Arenal, the third most active volcano in the world. Another exciting experience was having lunch at Paco’s, which is a tilapia farm where the fish are taken right out of the pond before you eat.”
“We really hope that giving students a positive experience in the field, and showing them what geography and the geosciences are all about, will have an influence on their global perspective,” Quiring said. “Maybe they’ll even consider becoming a geosciences major.”
Whether it was their first or tenth time to travel abroad, students had nothing but positive things to say about their experience and several are considering majoring in the geosciences.
“One of the coolest aspects of the trip was the actual site itself,” freshman Brianna Evola said. “We got to hike up a river! I was up to my shoulders in water at times. Getting to use a machete to cut your own path through the rainforest was pretty cool too. I felt like a true adventurer.”
In addition to exploring and studying the rainforest, students and faculty had another stirring experience, meeting the Soltis family, whose generous donation to Texas A&M made the Center a reality.
“The Soltis Center was amazing,” Evola said. “The engineers that designed it were fantastic. Everything was so open and in touch with the surrounding environment. And meeting Mr. Soltis and his daughter, Kim, was a life changing experience. His desire to help advance the lives of others truly was contagious. After this trip, I am in fact going to change my major to geosciences. It showed me that studying the Earth and how its people interact with each other is my true passion in life. It was a truly eye opening experience.”
To view photos from the trip, visit the group’s Facebook page, Geography Field Experience in Costa Rica.