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Sustainable Development Studies

September 7, 2015 - December 16, 2015



The School for Field Studies (SFS) Sustainable Development Studies semester program provides the opportunity for students to examine the effects of globalization on classic development issues such as agriculture, biodiversity protection, economic development, urban sprawl, population growth, waste management, and water resources.

Studying sustainable development feels a lot more meaningful when you’re interviewing farmers about the impact of tourism on their community than it does when you’re listening to a lecture in a classroom in Massachusetts.

—Devyn Powell, Tufts University, Fall ‘12



Costa Rica is internationally recognized for its efforts to ensure biodiversity conservation and protect natural resources. The country supports more than five percent of the world’s species and boasts 230 protected areas—about 26 percent of the land area of the country. The cloud forests, rainforests, volcanoes, coastal environments, and mountaintops shelter as many as 9,000 plant species, including at least 1,500 species of orchids alone. More than 1,000 species of butterflies and almost 900 species of birds, such as quetzals, toucans, hummingbirds, and scarlet macaws, are found throughout Costa Rica’s various tropical ecosystems. This remarkable biodiversity provides a rich platform for nature-based tourism, which is one of the country’s primary economic drivers. The diverse landscape mosaic of forests, pastures, coffee farms, and agricultural fields, and the stunning beaches and extensive mangroves, offer residents and tourists alike a natural haven for good food, rich culture, and exploration of tropical biodiversity.

Costa Rica faces a challenge common to developing countries: preserving beautiful—and economically valuable—natural resources while increasing prosperity and allowing for sustainable development. The Costa Rican paradise is increasingly threatened by population growth, urban development, inappropriate waste disposal, and monoculture expansion. The rapid conversion of rural agricultural landscapes into urban areas, the consequent loss and fragmentation of forests, and the increased demand for water in developed areas are threatening the country’s sustainable development efforts. Finding long-term solutions in sustainable practices is imperative for Costa Rica’s future.


Our goal is to analyze different development and resource management models that protect the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s ecosystems while promoting socioeconomic benefits for its people. Students will examine the effects of globalization on development issues such as agriculture, biodiversity protection, economic development, urban sprawl, population growth, waste management, and water quality. Students can see how the SFS farm compares with other sustainable farms in the region through an assessment of ecosystem services in the agricultural landscape.

This program focuses on evaluating the actual success of Costa Rica’s world-renowned conservation systems and developing alternative strategies for economic development and biodiversity conservation, such as land-use planning, organic agriculture, and conservation outside of protected areas. Visits to cloud forests, dry forests, volcanoes, lowland rainforests, farms, and plantations offer opportunities to examine management schemes, identify benefits of protected areas, and determine which systems offer the best options for economic development, the maintenance of cultural norms, and the preservation of biodiversity. Understanding the priorities for Costa Rica’s policies, within the context of environmental changes, is crucial as students analyze potential sustainable solutions for Costa Rica and the Central American region.


  • Compare and contrast development and resource-use issues during an extended field expedition to Nicaragua or remote Costa Rican locations (conditions permitting)
  • Visit national parks to investigate the pressures of ecotourism on small gateway communities and learn about cloud forest ecology
  • Learn about bio-indicators of ecosystem health and rainforest ecology
  • Develop management policies by continuing long-term bird monitoring programs and analyzing the impact of roads as barriers and sources of mortality for the fauna in Carara and Santa Rosa National Parks
  • Conduct social science research to better understand people’s perceptions about their surrounding environment
  • Visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a protected area rich in biodiversity and cultural significance
  • Explore rare and threatened tropical dry forest ecosystems while camping in the national parks of the Guanacaste Province and studying one of the most successful management models for protected areas in Latin America
  • Develop field research skills including habitat assessment and mapping, species identification, infrastructure assessment in protected areas, GIS or remote sensing, scientific writing and oral presentation, and survey design and interview techniques


  • Investigation of Carara National Park’s management practices in response to increased tourism
  • Evaluation of the socioeconomic benefits of Costa Rica’s national parks for neighboring communities
  • Impact of road traffic noises on the avifauna of national parks
  • Measurement of ecosystem services, such as biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration, in agroforestry systems such as shade-grown coffee farms
  • Evaluation of the impacts of artificial feeders on the ecology of hummingbirds in Monteverde
  • Assessment of public perceptions on the problems and solutions associated with environmental impacts resulting from climate change, urbanization, or management of solid wastes


Conversations and collaborations with local residents, small business owners, and farmers to better understand their perspectives and needs provide the framework for SFS research plans. Activities might include:

  • Monitoring and maintaining trail infrastructure at the Municipal Forest with local schools and conservation organizations
  • Engaging in long-term community projects: U.S. culture and English taught in the elementary schools; environmental education at the Municipal Forest; and recycling projects
  • Establishing nurseries of native tree species, and reforestation and watershed conservation projects with local organizations
  • Participating in soccer games, community festivals, and short homestays


The Center, located an hour from the capital city of San José, comprises a campus facility integrated with a small Rainforest Alliance Certified™ mango and orange farm overlooking the fertile Central Valley. Practicing sustainability is part of the student learning and living experience. The Center’s facilities include a dormitory and cafeteria, indoor and outdoor classrooms, an organic garden and greenhouse, a soccer field, a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a forested area with trails. The campus is part of the small neighborhood of La Presa/Los Angeles, and the friendly town of Atenas is only three miles from campus. Costa Rica’s tropical forests, beaches, mountains, and volcanoes are within a day’s travel.

Location Atenas, Costa Rica
Language English instruction with 2-credit Spanish Language & Culture course
Dates Fall 2015: September 7 – December 16

Spring 2016: February 1 – May 11

Deadline Rolling admissions. Early submissions encouraged for acceptance into program of choice.
Cost $21,450 (Includes all tuition, room, board, local travel. Excludes airfare).
Financial Aid Click here for more information about need-based scholarships, loans, and travel grants.
Prerequisites One college-level ecology, biology, or environmental studies course and one college level Spanish course (or excellent achievement in at least three years in high school Spanish); 18 years of age
Credits 18 credits


September 7, 2015
December 16, 2015
Event Category:


The School for Field Studies
Atenas, Costa Rica
View Venue Website


Ellen Reid

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