Interweaving a Costa Rica School Trip with My Zoology and Evolution Class
All Articles

Interweaving a Costa Rica School Trip with My Zoology and Evolution Class

Bas van Schooten is a biology teacher at Pasadena Waldorf School in Altavena, California. He worked with Rustic Pathways to customize a trip for his students in March to Costa Rica. It was the second time he took a group of students to Costa Rica with Rustic.


Our school started with a 12th-grade community service trip to tropical Costa Rica with Rustic Pathways. When Pasadena Waldorf School hired me, they asked me because of my tropical biology research experience to use the 12th grade Costa Rica trip to also teach tropical biology to my students. Because of my Ph.D. research on the evolution of smell and taste in passion-vine butterflies in Panama, I was very familiar with tropical biology and thought this was an awesome way to implement the idea of a Magic School Bus in real life. A rainforest is best taught as an immersive experience with all the senses.

To get the most out of the trip, we decided it should be in the middle of the zoology and evolution block in order to prepare students for Costa Rica and to collect data to analyze after the eight-day trip. This way the students would minimize spending time on computers while they could be in the field learning Biology firsthand. The eight days would allow us to schedule time for science, service work, surfing, and sleep as well.

What to Focus on in a Crazy-Diverse Rainforest?

I quickly decided I needed a place where my students could work with field guides and biologists to get the most out of their trip. Students don’t have experience with tropical animals and would struggle and see very little if not for the help of good local guides. I knew that La Selva Biological station had the facilities to stay in the forest and the biologists to guide my students. I asked Rustic Pathways to contact the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) to see if they could host us. OTS has the goal to teach tropical biology to students from Costa Rica and all over the world.

I had a few pet projects I wanted to do based on experiences I thought were very meaningful and impressive to me when I went to the tropics. I wanted students to:

  1. See bats up close and learn about their biology so they would learn to love bats instead of fear them.
  2. Experience and appreciate the tropical diversity of arthropods by attracting them with lights at night.
  3. See birds they don’t have in their own country. This was for the wow factor—in contrast to bats and bugs most people don’t fear birds.

In a collaboration between OTS and Rustic Pathways, we puzzled together a program where students get to do all of this and more.

The Result: Research in the Rainforest

One activity during the day required the students to look for bat tents. Many frugivorous bats make tents to spend the day in, safe from the rain. Students learned about bats by collecting data alongside guides who helped us find the tents. We collected data points on how high the tents were, which species of plant they were on, and which species of bat created them. We saw two species of tent-making bats in our last trip, including the adorable Honduran white bats (see photo below). Part of the class analyzed the bat data and will present on bat tents and how bats are beneficial to the environment.

We also visited a chocolate farm where, after a chocolate tour and dinner, we learned about the bat research project on the farm where they catch bats in mist nets. During the trip, the students meet several bat biologists who spoke enthusiastically about bats and showed them several species up close. Students really get to know and respect and appreciate bats during these activities.

In order to study nocturnal Arthropods, OTS has several light traps. We scheduled two nocturnal trips; in case of rain or other unanticipated events, we’d have a backup. By having two noctural trips, we could also do a little experiment to compare the families of Arthropods found in the secondary forest versus the primary forest.

Another nice thing about the noctural trips was that walking to the light traps allowed students to find all kinds of tropical creatures they wouldn’t see during the day. Some students overcame their fear of insects during this and started to appreciate them.

Photo courtesy of Bas van Schooten, Pasadena Waldorf School.During the day we spent time looking for birds on three trails, comparing secondary forest, primary forest, and the botanical garden, an intermediate between the two. We went with guides of La Selva who knew all bird calls. Students collected data on where in the forest we saw them (ground / undergrowth, sub-canopy or canopy), in which type of plant (tree, shrub, vine), and if we saw or heard the birds. We compared our data to long term data collected at La Selva. This allowed students to see and experience birds and learn how our impact on the landscape caused changes in bird communities even far inside reserves.

Photo courtesy of Bas van Schooten, Pasadena Waldorf School.

During the trip I had students take pictures and identify 25 animals they saw during the trip of at least five phyla, which took some vigilance. Most animals we saw belonged to only two phyla. Identifying 25 species is an easy job in the rainforest but this activity challenged my students to look more closely at the animals, take pictures of them, and identify which species they are. It also taught them how to identify any animal they came across in their lives with a mobile app (they love this integration with their own native technology).

Outside of biology activities, we spent two days doing community service and two days visiting the Caribbean where we went zip lining and surfing. Students also learned about the communities that surrounded the rainforest and the context of the conservation and stewardship work being done in the area.

The Result: Bringing it Home to California

At home, I used this travel experience as a reference when teaching evolution, how Darwin and Wallace had similar experiences in the tropics, and with examples of the evolution of groups of animals they saw in person in Costa Rica. We spent two days analyzing the data they collected in Costa Rica and creating formal presentations with all the things we learned about birds, bats, and bugs.

In all, Pasadena Waldorf’s collaboration with Rustic Pathways and OTS allowed me and my students to experience a lot of cool biology in a short amount of time. Rustic Pathways accommodated my curricular wishes and made the trip run smoothly with OTS, which had the expertise that would benefit students while being very hospitable. It was also great for students to wake up to the sounds of parrots and howler monkeys—an experience they’ll never forget.

Pura Vida,
Bas van Schooten
Pasadena Waldorf School


Click below to learn more about how to customize a trip to meet your curricular needs to provide your students with an immersive hands-on educational experience.

About the Author

Lauren DeAngelis Alvarez

Director of School Partnerships

Lauren brings experience from across Rustic Pathways’ sales and operations, including as our Strategic Partnerships Manager and USA Country Director. She lives between two Caribbean cities—New Orleans and Santo Domingo—and spends time by the ocean in New England where she grew up. She is a Temple University alumnus and non-fiction reader. You can usually find her hosting unexpected parties, exploring cities, or hiking the bayous with her family.