Arts and Culture

Biology course treks to the tropics

Over winter break, six Wheaton students traded in the cold for a few weeks in the tropics of Costa Rica and Belize. The trip, led by Wheaton College’s Scott Shumway and the State University of New York Purchase’s Susan Letcher, is offered every other year. As with other faculty-led trips, students must apply in the fall semester and are awarded one Wheaton credit upon completion of the program.

The focus of this particular trip is biology — specifically, Tropical Field Biology — but it is not just for biology majors. The course, listed as BIO 318, is open to applications from any student who has taken previous 200-level biology courses, and features an exploration of the biology of tropical rain forests, mangroves, sea grasses, and coral reefs. As a part of this exploration, students take part in lectures, guided natural history walks and snorkel tours, class research projects, and independent research projects.

The first week of the trip is spent at South Water Caye, a small island 14 miles off the coast of Belize. Here, students explore the Belize reef ecosystem, the second largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with mangroves and sea grass beds. Each day, students would put on wetsuits and snorkel in various locations around the reef, with names such as “Whale Shoals” and “Man-O-War Cay.” While the vibrant colors of the coral and the fish captivated the students, there was also evidence of a deteriorating ecosystem in areas dominated by sand and dead coral. Groups of students carried out research projects and took a census of the species that lived in a four square-meter plot. The remainder of the day was devoted to classroom time for discussions and presentations.

The second week started with a visit to the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, where students learned about the process of making chocolate from the cacao plant. The remainder of the week was spent at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, the most studied tropical rainforest in the world. As before, classroom time was interspersed among ventures out into the rainforest, including hikes, identifying plants and birds, and learning how species in the rainforest interact, making for a jam-packed schedule. Here, pairs of students conducted research projects that they would present to the class and write-up as part of the final paper. Each student also chose a species to study and then gave a presentation on that species when the class came across that particular species. The Station was also temporary home to scientists from all over the world, eager to talk about the work they were doing there.

But the work started before they boarded the plane. Over the course of the semester, the class met once a week for three hours to discuss its readings, which were all journal articles, in order to familiarize themselves with field research and the structure of such reports. The work done beforehand not only prepared students to conduct their own research projects, but to be able to identify species and to appreciate the incredible diversity of the rainforest.

For the students who went on the trip, their two weeks in Central America allowed them not only to escape the cold of winter, but to gain hands-on field experience and to see things they had never seen before.