Every year we look forward to the visit from the students of The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science (part of Western Kentucky University). This educational institution has received numerous accolades throughout the years and is named among the top-preforming high schools across the United States. Their visit to Costa Rica includes a turtle project, a visit along the southern coast for snorkeling, horseback riding and wildlife adventures, as well as cloud forest studies up here at the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve. It all sounds like a great holiday; but these students are researching, doing presentations and gaining cultural and environmental experiences every step of the way.
The students begin their day very early in the morning. They have to be at breakfast by 7:00 am and then out in the field working on their research projects by 8:00 am. (This schedule differs from their time at the turtle project where they were out walking the beaches in late night shifts collecting data for turtle conservation.) At Cloudbridge they are also studying conservation but this time it is about the forests and ecosystems at a higher elevation. The 16 students are divided up to do group research on trees, insects, plants and butterflies.
Everyone eats very well thanks to wonderful cooks. The food is a fusion of Costa Rican flavours and student favourites – Mango chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, soups, burritos, spaghetti, pancakes, pineapple crisp, chocolate cake and fresh wholewheat bread to name a few. We shop locally for fresh fruits and veggies to provide nutritious plant based meals.
The great thing about this visit is that we are in our 7th year of this study abroad program with Gatton. All of our staff/leaders – Tom, Frank, Jenn, Clarice, and Linda have developed long lasting friendships with the Gatton (Western Kentucky University) staff. We have as much fun (maybe more) than the students.
Out in the field, or should I say high on the slopes, the student groups are introduced to tropical reforestation and environmental research. This is not necessarily the main interest or career focus of every student. This school has students with engineering, math and computer science minds to name a few. Never the less everyone jumps into the particular study group that they have been assigned and the magic of nature and the challenges of biology open up new perspectives.
90% of butterfly species live in the tropics. Research about diversity of tropical butterfly populations helps to effectively conserve them. The students in this group didn’t know much about butterflies when they started their week long study. Using sweep nets and canopy traps they were able to catch and identify each species. There is a technique for using the nets. With a ‘swish and flick’ motion they were able to capture them and then learned how to hold them carefully for examination without injuring these delicate organisms. Learning about coloration, wing shapes, vein patterns, and body characteristics is all part of the identification process. The students soon learn how subtle some of the differences are between species. Using tools such as the Simpsons Index of Diversity along with their collection of data they were able to make some interesting generalizations considering the short time frame and complexity of habitat for the study.
Analyzing tree health is vital for reforestation projects. The students took a look at what factors effect a saplings tree health within its first 5 years of growth. Some of the factors included canopy closure, altitude, slope, soil type and competition from other plants. Of course there are so many other variables such as climate and insects and diseases that were not accounted for in this short term study. Never the less they put together some interesting data and looked at correlations that might be helpful for further planting studies. The success of reforestation projects will determine the outcome of species diversity, wildlife conservation and successful ecosystem recovery.
There was a couple of groups studying plants – epiphytes and understory plants. You need to know botany basics for identification. Venation patterns, petiole length, texture and serration of the leaf edges are all important to determine the family or genus. For the understory plants the students concluded that diversity increases as the planting plot age increased until about 15 years. At that point it started to decrease, probably due to the canopy cover shading out some of the plants. The epiphyte research looked at bromeliads, lichens, moss, ferns and angiosperms. One conclusion is that moss is always present and the most common of all epiphytes in the cloud forest. Variables in elevation and slope can also be a factor when looking at plants.
Dung beetles are a good indicator of biodiversity in the area. They exist on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. Keith Philips is an expert on this subject and provided a wealth of information from his years of research. The students set traps in the primary and secondary forests as well as in adjacent pasture land. Learning how to make their own traps, collect the beetles and then ID them was all part of the process. They concluded that there is more diversity and abundance in the primary forest.
Scientific investigations in the realm of biology and environmental studies are complex. Often results are inconclusive and there are many variables at play. The field research provides an opportunity to explore the environment with hands on experience. The students learn how to gather and integrate information through observations, identification, and sampling methods. Critical thinking, communicating and proposing solutions are also part of the process. These skills will be useful for all of their future studies.
Part of what was so interesting with these young people was how innovative and creative they could be. For instance, one group needed to measure the slope but they didn’t have any tools on site with which to do this. Within minutes they began to collaborate on what would work and they came up with a protractor of sorts using the back of a notebook, a weight, and a string.
Another group didn’t have the densiometer to measure canopy cover and so someone used their glasses to receive the reflection and then they did a % calculation from that observation.
Talking Climate Change
The reality of climate change at our reserve has never been clearer. The last two years have seen much warmer temperatures on the mountain. This equates to lower survival rates of our seedlings and changing ecosystems for wildlife.
Our solution is education. We have 3 climate leaders at Cloudbridge. Tom, Linda and Frank took the world renowned Climate Reality Leadership Corps training and now give presentations to student groups, volunteers and researchers who come to the reserve.
We hope that educating our visiting Gatton students about climate change will inspire them to be leaders in their future careers in a way that will be sustainable and bring climate action to the forefront of their work environments. After all, it will be within their lifetime when food and water security will be at risk along with species extinction if they don’t choose to act.
Leading by example can challenge students to make changes …
…and then challenging them to do what they can:
Time for some relaxation and fun!
Sketching lessons can teach observation skills and might be needed out in the field to record ideas or just for fun!
A cultural night included Costa Rican traditional food and music.
We have some strict rules for those who leave their stuff lying around and cluttering up the dining area. At every meal there were a few who were disciplined and had to sing a song because of their clutter bug tendencies.
2017 Gatton Academy visiting groups at the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve
“Thanks for the immersive education in all things ecological. Makes me more committed to fight for a cleaner future than ever! Muchas gracias.” – Tony
“This place is the most amazing place I’ve been! There is no place on earth where you will find so many different plants and animals or feel so close to nature” – Marco Garcia
“Cloudbridge is ecotourism at its finest. Conservation is key to all that they do and education is everywhere.” – Olivia Simpson
“Amazing place! Thank you for everything. Changed my perspective.” – Xander Bowen
“I learned more about the earth and myself everyday.” – Sarah
“This is the seventh time visiting this magical place – one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. There is so much more to the tropics than just the beaches!” – Dr. Keith Philips
“Thanks for your hospitality, friendliness, and knowledge. What a great few days. See you next year.” – Dr. Martin Stone
“Thank you all for making Cloudbridge the magical perfect place it is. Your hospitality, teaching, and interest in our students is unmatched.” – Dr. Derick Strode