Organization for Tropical Field Studies
This program allows students to experience first-hand what it means to conduct, as well as live, field-research. Students will spend a semester studying six different diverse tropical sites in various parts of Costa Rica, focusing heavily on environmental studies and biology, supplemented by studies of their social, political, and economic dimensions. Spanish skills will also be treated and ameliorated. In addition to hands-on experience in field-research, students will have the chance to create and conduct their own independent research project with the help of their instructors. Students will stay in research centers, and will camp in-field. Meals will be provided by the program. This program will provide students with both valuable experience in field studies, and connections for further research. One year of college-level biology is required to qualify for this program, and one year of college-level Spanish is highly recommended.
Further info can be found at:http://ots.ac.cr/index.phpoption=com_content&task=view&id=300&Itemid=440
I felt that the program was at a good level of academic rigor; they kept us very busy most of the time and I definitely learned a lot, but most of the time we weren't overwhelmed with work. What we learned often seemed like a bit of a hodge-podge of random Biology information, but I think it's just too difficult to do a complete survey of Tropical Biology in one semester, so they just gave us what information they could. I would definitely tell future students that this program is not going to be a program in which you go just to have fun; the classes are definitely demanding and will take up a lot of your time. Most of the time we were in dorm-style housing. Food was served to us cafeteria style, with fairly limited options (although the cooks were always extremely considerate of dietary restrictions, from lactose-intolerant to vegetarian to even more extreme than that). We had hot showers probably less than half of the time, and we in general had very little personal space—shared rooms, shared bathrooms, etc. Just be sure that you're OK with the severe restrictions on personal space and also on personal time—you don't get to choose when you eat or have any flexibility in scheduling classes. You have to spend a LOT of time with the same group of about 20 students, which is both good and bad. But the rainforest is amazing, and this is a great way to get to really see, much more rewarding than just visiting it as a tourist. As a non-science major, I would warn other non-science majors that they will be spending a lot of time completing biology projects that they might not find to be extremely engaging, unless they really like biology.
Academically, OTS was very different from Reed. We learned a lot of practical things like plant and insect identification, while at Reed even the sciences are focused more on theoretical and conceptual learning. At first I found this kind of school tiresome, and missed the Reed academic experience a lot. However, when it came time to do independent projects, it became more apparent to me why such practical knowledge is important: knowing what things are and how they fit into the bigger ecological picture is critical to forming interesting and testable questions. Overall, I thought the academic aspects of the program were very different from Reed, but still extremely valuable, and the opportunity to do field ecology in some amazing ecosystems is (in my opinion) unparalleled. Housing and food conditions were variable based on the location. The program visits six different biological stations as well as a few short overnight or weekend stays at other locations. At some of the stations, the food is outstanding, the beds are comfortable, and there are common spaces for hanging out. In others, however, the food is mediocre, the mattresses are thin, and/or the classroom and dining hall are the only social spaces. I think the really standout part of the OTS program is the field-based learning, and I have definitely gained a lot of experience doing field research this semester. In the course, you do two independent projects (IPs) and participate in five faculty-led research projects (FLPs) with awesome visiting professors from different universities in the US and Costa Rica. The other students and I called the research part of the course "scientist boot camp," since you only have four days to gather data for the IPs and two days for the FLPs. It sounded crazy to me at first, but it's actually amazing how much we accomplished in such short projects! So, I guess you could say that I learned more about my own capability to do good science, even in very short time frames. I'd still take Reed faculty first any day of the week, but the experience of spending all waking hours with your professors and sharing meals with them every day really enriched my experience, and allowed me to learn a lot more about their research interests and their personal journeys that led them to where they are today.