The College of Charleston’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry had never attempted a study-abroad course before this year. Too often there’s no time to take an entire semester off, or students are busy engaged in summer research. But when professors Katherine Mullaugh and William Veal discovered that the University of Georgia had a Costa Rica campus, they came together to brainstorm the best experiential learning opportunity.

“Costa Rica is a country that is very concerned with the conservation of the environment,” says Mullaugh, an assistant professor of chemistry. “So we thought it would be a good place to focus on the sustainability issues that the College has highlighted for the past year.” 

This Maymester course started in Charleston with students learning how to use portable data collection equipment and analyze water samples for different nutrients. Students and faculty visited the College’s Environmental Campus on the Stono River, an environmentally pristine 800-acre property located just 17 miles from the main downtown campus. Water samples were collected, contextual information was noted, and observations were made to ensure the integrity of the data. Further water quality analyses were completed on campus in the chemistry lab. From this hands-on experience, the students had a foundation that they could use in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

Abby Stratton and Jabbarius Ervin measuring dissolved oxygen in water from a pond at UGA – Costa Rica. (Photos provided)

“The students were very good at studying in the lab but had never taken those skills outside,” says Veal, a professor in the Department of Teacher Education specializing in science education.

The real-life experience in Costa Rica enriched the lessons that the class learned back in South Carolina.

“By going outside and doing some inquiry activities, it really helped them understand the practicality of chemistry,” says Veal.

That was definitely the case for Tiffany Vereen, a junior majoring in biochemistry.

I would say one of my favorite parts of the trip was the ability to practice scientific principles in the field, not just in the lab,” she said. So much of the chemistry I had done up until the trip had been in a lab. I loved being able to conduct chemical analyses in the remote rainforest and collect real-time data that has real implications on the Costa Rican environment. When we were able to share our results of water quality with the local community, it really helped connect the value of studying our environment and its impact on culture and society. I loved being able to collect real data that could be used for further improvements in water quality.”

The group flew to San Juan, visited Hot Springs, and studied mainly at the University of Georgia‘s campus located in the tropical rain forest of Monteverde.

“It is a pretty untouched environment,” Mullaugh explained. “It was a refreshing look at how the environment plays a role in water quality.”

Jabbarrius Ervin, a junior majoring in chemistry, says the experience forced him out of his comfort zone to experience nature up close.

“I’d definitely say that my favorite and most memorable part of the trip was getting connected with nature,” says Ervin. “I am most certainly not one that indulges in many outside activities, however, this trip allowed  – and forced  – me to become more environmentally aware of my surroundings. And what better time to do this than in Costa Rica. We were able to go on several hikes throughout the trip, but my favorite was the night hike. Although it poured while we walked through the woods in the pitch black (flashlights provided some light), I enjoyed seeing the different animals and night life and how different it was from what I had seen during the day. It was definitely rewarding by the end of the trip to be able to name different species of plants, birds, bugs, etc.” 

Mullaugh and Veal both say they want to take more chemistry students to Costa Rica in the future.

“We were able to combine chemistry with environmental science, geology and biological science at this facility, which was really rewarding,” Veal says.

Mullaugh adds, “When the students are able to go out into the environment and touch it and experience it, it makes for a much more meaningful experience.”

 Featured image: Professors Katherine Mullaugh and William Veal with students in Costa Rica.