Costa Rican Collaborative
Lee College’s Study Abroad Program Pins Pedagogy To Inspiration
By Margene Lenamon
“If a child is to keep alive (their) inborn sense of wonder, (they) need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with (them) the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” ~ Rachel Carson
This mandate has become the mission of the Science Education Academy (SEA)-to nurture future teachers to become the adults that will help our youth hold on to that inborn sense of wonder. Created nearly five years ago by Margene Lenamon, (Science Instructor, Lee College) and Teresa Lattier (Director of Teacher Education, Lee College), SEA is the culmination of a series of interesting conversations that ultimately morphed into a partnership to promote the teaching of science to future teachers, as well as having a professional development outreach platform with elementary schools in the Lee College service area to assist them with teaching more science as well. The resulting collaboration has provided a wide array of opportunities for numerous unique and often exhilarating experiences for both them and their students. To read the complete article, click here.
For example, in the very first year of their partnership, during a discussion about the program with a visiting Texas A&M articulation team, Margene and Teresa were invited to the Texas A&M Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Isidro Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica (check out their website at http://soltiscentercostarica.tamu.edu). Joined by their community partner, Tracey Prothro (Superintendent, Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center, Baytown) they spent a week exploring the possibilities available to them and were encouraged to develop a field trip experience for their students at Lee College. By February of the next year they made their inaugural “experiential learning opportunity through immersive science fieldwork trip” with five education majors and one science major.
Their trip began with an overnight stay and exploration of the capitol city of San Jose, where students enjoyed the local street festivals, learned about Costa Rica via its historical buildings and witnessed different cultural mores. But the students were also tasked to take careful note of the many accommodations made for those who have special needs-some their own future students may have-discovering multiple innovative inclusion practices, including the unique differentiation of sizes and shapes of the local currency. Up and out early the next day-the trip north to the Soltis Center included a high altitude stop, where a winding drive took the students to a chilly visitors center some 8,885 feet above sea level, and a short hike from there allowed them to peer into the active crater of Poas volcano (Note: less than one month after last years trip, Poas erupted, and the national park has still not reopened). Then, the series of cataracts (waterfalls) along the road leaving the area of this stratovolcano made for just one of the thousands of photo ops that during our week-long adventure, threatened to exceed the capacity of our camera’s memory cards.
After arriving and settling into the beautifully and environmentally conscience accommodations at the Soltis Center, students began to experience science in the context of a field research station. At various times during the week students collected and analyzed data, worked and interacted with field biologists, all while exploring the unique environmental setting of a cloud rainforest. Opportunities to hike in the beautiful mountainous terrain and to see geological features such as waterfalls and deep ravines also provided occasions to view flora and fauna unlike anything these students had ever seen firsthand before. Students also studied and observed the water cycle in a setting markedly different than is observed in Southeast Texas-even though experiencing very little rainfall, since the timing of the trip fell just within the the dry season, which extends from mid-November to April.
Finding themselves only 10° from the equator, students had to adapt to their new schedule that saw sunrise and sunset, as well as breakfast and dinner, occurring at around 6:00 each day. Most mornings included a wake-up call by local holler monkeys and/or a resident toucan. Breakfast in the dining hall kicked off a series of activities with each day having a new and different event, some at the center, and some requiring excursions into the surrounding region. Most excursions not only had a destination of interest, but also typically involved several unscheduled roadside stops to get up close and personal with sloths, coatimundi (or pizote to the locals), iguanas, Morpho butterflies, and a number of birds, too many to list here.
One excursion began at 4:30 a.m., experiencing sunrise from the bus in route to a local farm to milk cows. This was followed by a morning of learning and participating in the conversion of milk to cheese-which concluded with stories to repeat for a lifetime and delicious samples enjoyed by all. Another excursion exposed students to a truly unique venue for the teaching of math via the use the geometric patterns found in a series of gardens. A Costa Rican teacher, retired after 22 years to create and promote the benefits of self-sustained eco-tourist farms, and blended both his passions to create this extraordinary day trip destination. His farm also allows visitors to learn about various indigenous plants as well as how to capture every possible resource, including the methane from the farm animals! Each visit is capped off with a 5-star meal produced entirely on site-including delicious pan-seared Tilapia.
Each day delivers a truly rewarding experience. However, one of, if not the most, rewarding is the day these future teachers spent at the local one-room schoolhouse. There they got to interact with 15 students spread across grades1-6 that all work within one classroom with one teacher. The day is spent putting pedagogical ideology into action. As well as getting to engage in several educational activities with the elementary students, we also eat lunch, make baggie ice cream for dessert, play some soccer, and walk away with a better appreciation of what second language learners experience. One of the most unique experiences students had not only that day, but throughout the trip was for Lee College’s dual language students to be truly appreciated for being bilingual, and for the single language participants to experience what it is like to be immersed in a language different from their own. It is a fun yet powerful day for all involved.
The trip doesn’t end without a few hours spent on the last day actually getting to be a “tourist” with opportunities to souvenir hunt, experience a world class zip-line adventure, or just take in the spectacular views of the areas famous landmark, Arenal volcano. It is truly an immersive, experiential learning adventure for all participants, both current and future educators alike.
Now, fast forward to the present-February 2018-twelve Lee College students will have an opportunity to experience a similar, remarkable adventure. After a second successful trip last year, this year’s trip will see a few changes to the itinerary, but in general will follow a similar pattern of experiential learning opportunities. Additionally, the SEA team will continue its “pay it forward” policy. This policy arose from the rationale for the original trip that was made to the Soltis Center. The invitation was made to the SEA program as a way to help bring more colleges and students to the Soltis Center to help perpetuate its mission. Therefore, each trip SEA has the opportunity to make, they invite at least one other participant who is legitimately interested in developing a field trip to the center of their own and/or individuals who can help provide support to perpetuate these trips. This field trip is not a vacation-it is a working week for all involved. All faculty and guests are required to provide at least one interactive, hands-on lesson to be conducted in the centers two fully equipped classrooms with the students. The trip is a culmination of months spent preparing-from paperwork to funding and multiple details in between and it is no small feat to make a trip like this happen. But it is worth every effort!
After being the “pay it forward” attendee three years ago, this trip will be the second by Dr. Gregg Lattier and several business students. The majority of the trip is combined with all students taking part in the same excursions. However, the day the education students spend at the elementary school, the business students visit a coffee plantation and processing plant, one of the biggest businesses in Costa Rica. This combination of two different programs going simultaneously provides a number of benefits not the least of which is making it much more affordable for all attendees. However an ancillary benefit that immerged on the last trip is anticipated, and hoped to be present again on this trip. During the last trip, each team understandably viewed the day’s activities through the lens of their own discipline and each team had their own meetings to discuss the day’s events; however, at dinner and on many of the bus rides, what developed between many of the participants were exceptionally rich conversations that were truly phenomenal to witness. Students spontaneously began to enrich each other’s learning experiences as they discovered where each of their worlds had overlap and commonalities, and the faculty encouraged various presentations from both teams to be made to the entire group which led to some very creative feedback-truly taking cross discipline learning to a whole new level.
This years “pay it forward” attendee will raise the possibility of yet another college being afforded the opportunity to make the most of Texas A&M’s stellar international facility. Dr. Lillian McEnery, the director of the UHCL Success Through Education Program (STEP) at the University of Houston-Clear Lake (an initiative we are a current partner of with our BAERR program), will join us to discuss the prospects of a joint UHCL/Lee College future educators field trip for next year. She is also our CoPI on the UHCL side in a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-writing partnership. The grant proposal to be submitted in March will help fund a bridge program connecting SEA and future teachers at both Lee College and UHCL through professional development opportunities designed to increase their science teaching efficacy by providing additional background science content to supplement their degree plans. We have lots of spectacular plans to discuss that will provide numerous opportunities for our future teacher students.
SEA has been and continues to be a partnership where opportunities abound. Future plans include exploring additional grant funding to keep the Costa Rica program on track, as well finalizing a service learning type program to encourage future teachers in becoming Junior Science Ninjas! They will have several opportunities to accrue hours of outreach through participation with the Science Ninja; in area STEM Family nights hosted by many elementary schools; by working the hands-on science stations at the STEM Zone area of the Nurture Nature event at the Baytown Nature Center; and/or by assisting or instructing at the annual Lee College STEM day, as well as summer STEM camps currently in development. The SEA program truly subscribes to the belief that “Inspiration is not taught, it’s learned!” Therefore to inspire, you must have been inspired! We believe the Costa Rica experience and other immersive and experiential learning opportunities being developed by the SEA program will provide that inspiration for our students to persist and become the next group of inspirational educators for their students!