Science key components studied by Highland students in Costa Rica


Spring break for 42 Highland High School students provided an opportunity to see tiny bats the size of a cotton ball, a plethora of monkeys and new types of macro invertebrates. The six-day eco-adventure trip to Costa Rica also gave them a chance to hike up to a volcano and study the culture of a different country.

Quite different from a typical student spring break, the high schoolers and their seven teacher chaperones traveled to a different city nearly every day – not only to study a different area of science, but to have some fun such as zip lining and a white-water rafting trip.

The student travel program is designed to incorporate all elements of STEM learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Teacher Kritine Nerlick said that when the trip was announced she expected a small group of parents to attend the required parents’ meeting. She said she was surprised when the classroom was filled with prospective students and a waiting list had to be formed. At the April Board of Education meeting, school officials said with the high level of interest expressed, they would try to expand the number of students who could participate in the spring break trip.

Among the teachers who served as chaperones were science teacher Danielle Sampliner, Spanish teachers Tina McKeen and Michael Tipple, English teachers Christopher Meyer and Mariana Hardy and social studies teacher Christopher Kestner.

Nerlick saidthat the trip to Costa Rica was backed by the WorldStrides organization and, as a result, students, by completing a list of requirements, could actually earn three college credits.

“For these students, this spring break trip wasn’t about partying,” said Nerlick. “We studied and had fun. The students got up early each morning and each day was packed with activities so at the end of the day, they were exhausted.”

The students’ base was a hotel in San Jose from where students departed every day to travel to a different area of the country. Activities were designed for students to expand their knowledge in the areas of scientific method, biodiversity, conservation and pollution.

Day one began at the Tirimbina Rainforest Center where students served as field ecologists constructing ecological hypotheses, collecting data and analyzing the results. They learned how bats are farmers of the tropics by viewing their interaction with the rainforest habitat.

Highland junior Luke Marinella said in the evening a bat expert came in to work with the students.

“Some of the bats were as small as cotton balls,” Marinella said. “We got to get up really close to observe the bats’ teeth and wingspan. We also checked seed traps to evaluate the material collected from the previous night’s bat tour activities. At the end of the lesson, the bats were released.”

Traveling to Sarapiqui, students examined Costa Rican ecology through a nature hike to observe birds.

“We had the experience of walking across a one-quarter mile rope bridge over water,” said Highland High School junior Brianna Ciphers. “We also spent time looking at macro invertebrates and gathered water samples to perform water quality tests. … With six students to a raft, we took a raft trip and paddled the rapids through the lower Sarqpiquit from Braulio Carrillo National Park. We didn’t know it, but in the back of the rafts, the raft guides had stored fresh fruit which they cut up for our lunch. It was the best fruit I’ve ever eaten.”

Nerlich said a big part of the trip was learning about the culture of the people of Costa Rica.  She said students experienced a hands-on cooking lesson, as well as a dance lesson. In addition, students participated in a service that called for scraping rust off an elementary school fence, painting it and then enjoying some sports with the students.

Marinella said another memorable part of the trip was hiking up to an inactive volcano where students learned how plants and animals have become reestablished after volcanic activity. He said after the hike, they had a chance to relax in Baldi Hot Springs at the base of the volcano.

Another trip highlight was exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the best-know cloud forest in the world.

“It was much cooler in the cloud forest,” Ciphers said. “It was about 60 degrees there versus about 90 above. We learned how the change in altitude produces a high degree of biodiversity. It was there we saw many species of frogs including poison dart frogs, glass frogs and toads – species that are unique to the tropics of Costa Rica.”

One of the final activities was a zip line tour, as part of which students had the opportunity to see jungle life in the Costa Rican rainforest from a bird’s-eye perspective.

Nerlich said one of the more interesting parts of the trip was learning how Costa Rica, which is effectively the size of West Virginia, prioritizes ecology.

“You are not allowed to even kill a bug,” said Nerlich, “and a bus will stop if a lizard is crossing the road.”

The students and teachers packed a lot in during their week-long trip. Marinella said travelling to Costa Rica “was a once in a lifetime experience,” noting that he learned things he’d never learn from a book.” ∞

A group of Highland High School students spent their spring
break on an academic trip to Costa Rica. Sharing highlights
of the week-long experience are junior Luke Marinella (left),
science teacher Kristine Nerlich and junior Brianna Ciphers.
Photo by Chris Studor

Students conducted field exercises in ecology
on a daily basis. Photo submitted.

A whitewater rafting excursion was one
of the trip highlights. Photos submitted.

Students were hands-on during meal preparation as part of a cooking lesson.

On our cover (main/photo): More than 40 Highland High School students and seven teacher chaperones traveled to Costa Rica over their spring break this past March to put their STEM skills to work. Photo submitted.