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Revista de Biología Tropical

On-line version ISSN 0034-7744Print version ISSN 0034-7744

Rev. biol. trop vol.62 n.3 San José Jul./Sep. 2014


Fifty years of undergraduate scientific field research in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Costa Rica program

Christopher Vaughan1*, Judith Magnan2*, & Michael B. McCoy3*

The importance of preparing students for global citizenship and the development of intercultural competency in an increasingly interdependent world has long been recognized by many higher education institutions in the United States. Experiential learning through study abroad is one means of achieving this goal (Brewer & Cunningham, 2010). For decades, Costa Rica has offered a stable, welcoming and culturally rich environment for study abroad programs.

For undergraduate students interested in pursuing further studies and academic or research careers, the opportunity to develop field research skills is a valuable tool. To carry out professionally guided research with the cultural and linguistic preparation afforded by study abroad not only provides students with academic and cultural development, but it may enable them to make a significant contribution to the host country.

History of the ACM Costa Rica Program

ACM Consortium

In 1958, 10 liberal arts colleges of the Midwestern United States formed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) to promote institutional collaboration and the achievement of common objectives. The founding group, comprised of Beloit, Carleton, Coe, Cornell, Grinnell, Knox, Monmouth, Ripon, and St. Olaf Colleges and Lawrence University, was joined by Macalester and Colorado Colleges in 1967, Lake Forest College in 1974, the College of the University of Chicago between 1988 and 2008, and Luther College in 2009 (ACM 2013a). ACM currently has 13 member colleges and one university from five states and administers 16 study abroad programsin 11 countries.

Initial consortial goals for joint action focused on the educational effectiveness, efficiency of administrative and cultural operations, and development of additional sources of revenue of the member colleges and university. In 2013, ACM´s mission is to strengthen its members as leaders in liberal arts education through joint efforts to improve the professional effectiveness of faculty and administrative leaders, to provide exemplary liberal arts learning through off-campus studies, and to promote excellence in teaching and learning through collaboration (ACM 2013b).

ACM Costa Rica Program

In 1963, in response to a growing interest in curricular development through foreign study and research, and after considering other potential Central American sites, ACM created the Central American Field Studies Program in San José, Costa Rica. The program was designed to provide participants with experience in scientific field studies in preparation for careers related to the tropical environment and to allow ACM faculty to develop research interests in Latin American studies. The resulting field research projects would contribute to the growing knowledge of the tropical environment and to teaching materials in anthropology, biology, economics, geography, geology, and sociology.

ACM designated the non-profit research and teaching organization, the Tropical Science Center (TSC), founded in 1962 by tropical ecologist Leslie R. Holdridge, geographer Joseph A. Tosi, and tropical biologist J. Robert Hunter to administer the program. Dr. Hunter was named program director. The initial plans for the program were broadened to include implementing independent study and research throughout Central America, and developing a relationship with the Consejo Superior Universitario Centroamericano (CSUCA). The first group of students began the program in July of 1964 under Hunter´s direction (P. Dennis, 1989).

Costa Rica Program development

Over the past fifty years, Costa Rica has provided the ideal environment for student academic and cultural growth. During this time, the program has maintained a strong field research component in the spring semester while the fall semester has evolved in response to changing contemporary issues in Latin America in general, and Costa Rica in particular. Since 1964, approximately 2 050 students have participated in the program, divided almost equally between the fall and spring programs.

Due to widespread interest in tropical science in the United States at the time, the program received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation until 1967. Program director and agronomy professor, Hunter, was accompanied by TSC professors Holdridge in ecology, Tosi in geography and Jorge Lines in archaeology. At that time, students lived in a boarding house in San José and language was not part of the curriculum.

When external program funding ended in 1967, the relationship with the TSC ended, although Hunter continued to serve as director. Language was incorporated into the curriculum and students were housed with Costa Rican families, facilitating greater cultural integration.

The program did not expand to other Central American countries as was initially planned, and in 1970, was renamed the Costa Rican Development Studies Program. In 1974, under the direction of anthropologist Ridgeway Satterthwaite, the focus of the fall semester changed to “Studies in Latin American Culture and Society,” leaving field research exclusively for the spring. In 1977, the field study semester became the Tropical Field Research Program (ACM 2013c; Dennis, 1989).

In the late 1970´s, ACM developed a relationship with the University of Costa Rica (UCR) that led to the signing of a legal agreement between the two institutions. There are three essential components of this relationship: a) the ACM scholarship program through which approximately 200 UCR students have received full, one-year scholarships to attend ACM and other participating colleges and universities; b) a one-year visiting professor position for a recent ACM graduate to teach English at UCR; and c) visiting student status for ACM students at UCR.

In 2009, the Latin American cultural focus of the fall program was redefined with a more local emphasis as Costa Rica: Language, Society, & the Environment. That year, the breadth of research carried out in the spring was reflected in the name of the program that remains today, Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities. In 2013, the fall semester was reoriented to encompass new directions with the title Costa Rica: Community Engagement in Public Health, Education, & the Environment.

Current Program Curricula

The fall and spring ACM Costa Rica programs share the common goal of exposing students to Costa Rica’s natural and cultural resources through an intensive language program complemented by educational field trips and guest speakers by means of which they are exposed to projects, local experts and activists in the environmental and social sciences, public health, and humanities. Students further develop their language skills, intercultural competency and appreciation of the host country by living with both an urban and a rural Costa Rican host family. In both semesters, students often express their desire to make a contribution to the country through their internship, practicum or field research.

Since 1967, ACM´s commitment to greater student linguistic and cultural development through host family stays has led to the development of a database of over 100 families in the San José area and approximately 300 families in rural areas throughout the country. Families are selected based on their interest in integrating students in their family life and culture; in exchange, they receive a monthly stipend to cover the student´s expenses. Both students and families receive orientation and follow-up staff support to facilitate student adaptation to the family, community and culture. For students, this experience has long been recognized as a key component of the program and families have expressed their desire to continue to receive ACM students because of their students’ academic orientation and interest in the culture. This component of the program has led to the development of a culturally respectful and mutually beneficial relationship essential to the students´ personal and academic growth.

Costa Rica: Community Engagement in Public Health, Education, & the Environment

An estimated 1 015 students have participated in the ACM Costa Rica fall semester program over the 50-year period. The present fall ACM Costa Rica program prepares students for exploring, studying and working in Latin America (and developing countries in general) through coursework and other experiences meant to develop language skills and concurrently deepen knowledge in particular fields such as public health, education, and the environment. Although most of the semester is spent in the Central Valley in coursework (, an important part of the program is a month-long rural internship or practicum, for which students live with local “campesino” families, participate in local community life, and complete a project related to public health, education and/or the environment. During the 12 week urban stay, divided into an initial 5 week block and a 7 week block at the end, groups take field trips with course professors and resource people around Costa Rica. This helps students appreciate the country’s astounding biodiversity, and very interesting cultural, educational, health and historical elements. Spanish language improvement is continuous in small customized Spanish classes and through living with Costa Rican families. Students are pressured and rewarded to speak Spanish in courses, with family members, with peer groups, on field trips, and in other program activities, leaving the country much more fluent than they arrive.

Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities

Similar to the fall program, the spring research program was created in 1964 to investigate Costa Rica’s natural environment and its people and especially how the country maintains a top ranking in Latin America in biodiversity conservation and human development. ACM student research is focused on applied studies dealing with interrelated aspects of biodiversity, agriculture, public education, socialized medicine, and culture.

ACM Costa Rica Research

During the past 50 years, there have been approximately 1 088 ACM research projects spanning the natural sciences (532) and social sciences and humanities (556) (Table 1). The research process at ACM Costa Rica has been likened to conducting significant research and writing a “mini-thesis” because the student goes through all the steps that a graduate student undertakes for a master’s thesis. In almost all cases, the students have never conducted research and Costa Rica is their first experience. Working closely with a local advisor, the research coordinator and director, the student designs, carries out, analyzes and writes up a unique field research project. There are currently semester and trimester research programs during which students experience linguistic and cultural immersion living with urban and rural host families. The semester research process consists of three periods: a) one month (usually February) writing a proposal, while students study and improve Spanish in and outside of classes, b) two months of field research (March and April) when students collect data in a rural area following the guidelines established in the research proposal, and c) one month (May) of data analysis when two paper drafts are written before the final paper is turned in and presented orally in the ACM building at a group “semiprofessional” scientific symposium. Since 2010, several changes to strengthen the research program have been instituted. These include: a) a field research course during the first month, b) several drafts of the proposal and final paper, c) use of Dropbox for student folders and the exchange of project-related files, and d) required online training and in class review of ethical principles.


For grading, this semester is divided into three courses: a) a Spanish course, b) a field research course and c) a field seminar and paper. For the field research course, the academic work is evaluated based on the student’s: a) use of field research methods in keeping with the research proposal, b) understanding and analysis of data, and c) dedication in the field. For the field seminar and paper, the student is evaluated based on three oral presentations and the research proposal and final paper. The research proposal and final papers require several drafts (Table 2). Finally, the advisor submits a grade and written evaluation.

Research Advisors

ACM research advisors ( have been selected based on their professional fields, research experience and interest in working with ACM. These local advisors are an integral part of the research process, ensuring feasible research projects. Advisors and research coordinators work with students in small groups and individually to provide overall guidance in the development, implementation, data analysis, and preparation of final papers and presentations of student research projects. Work of research coordinators enhances the individual guidance provided by the local research advisors. Several months before travelling to Costa Rica, students accepted into the program are assigned an advisor based on their interests and advisors’ expertise. Based on initial contact between the advisor and the student, students begin reviewing and saving published articles pertinent to the proposed research project. This database can be improved in Costa Rica after meeting with advisors at the ACM center or at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) where they are visiting students.

Program Structure

The first month (February) involves learning how to conduct research, writing a research proposal outline, two preliminary drafts, the final research proposal and student and advisor visiting the field site (Table 2). Cultural and language immersion are also emphasized. A workshop on research, proposal design and methodology is given by the natural science coordinator and director which focuses on such topics as research design, preparation of a proposal, and data collection in the field. The proposal should follow guidelines given to students by the director and found on the following website ( A Dropbox folder for each student on his/her research project to facilitate communication is used extensively by the student, advisor, research coordinator and director with numerous folders dealing with drafts, final copies and oral presentations. Students design a data sheet and/or interview to organize data collection. Information on ethical guidelines for human subject research is discussed for students dealing with humans in their research and they are required to take an online course given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH 2013). Students share their research project with their colleagues as a PowerPoint presentation in a short joint meeting. Throughout the semester and during the midterm and final presentations, students share their research projects with colleagues, advisors and staff; so there is a joint progressive learning experience.

During the second and third month (March and April) a minimum of 40 days are spent in data collection at a rural site, usually during weekdays while students live with a rural family. During the research period, students maintain a data sheet and/or carry out interviews, keep a daily activity record with a field or spiral notebook, take pictures and carry out preliminary data analysis when in contact with advisors or research coordinator. Advisors, director and research coordinator visit the site and consult by e-mail (all students have laptops and most have e-mail in their rural site) to ensure the project is proceeding as designed. Changes in experimental design may be made if necessary. Students return to San Jose for a midterm data analysis and individual oral presentation to the group at the ACM office. Bringing computerized data allows additional review, analysis and design changes among student, advisor and research coordinator. As mentioned, oral presentations permit information exchange and learning among all students.

The research objective for the last month (May) is to analyze the data and write the final paper which is presented in an oral presentation. The final paper is written according to the format of the research journal International Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation and includes the following parts: title, abstract, introduction, methodology, results, discussion, conclusions, and literature cited. Figures, tables and graphs are presented at the end. These parts were also followed during the proposal writing process to facilitate final paper writing. The ACM director provides guidelines for writing the final paper and there are several classes given by the research coordinator and director about writing the final paper. Also ACM Costa Rica uses the following website to facilitate paper writing. An outline and minimum of two drafts are written before the final paper is turned in (Table 2). All documents are deposited in Dropbox. All research papers are normally written in English unless the director, Spanish language coordinator and advisor agree to the student’s petition to write in Spanish. The final paper must be typed (including graphs, charts, diagrams) and double-spaced, with final copies saved in the student’s Dropbox folder, sent to the director and advisor in Microsoft Word format. Photographs, charts and appendices must be incorporated in the main Word file. Students may use the ACM Costa Rica research for a senior project, honor’s thesis, publication, Costa Rican, U.S. or international symposium or as the basis of graduate research. Eighteen (18) of the ACM Costa Rica student research projects have led to publications in the International Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation (Appendix 1) and nine more are included in this number of the journal. We are very proud to contribute to tropical biology and conservation as well as the social sciences and humanities through our students’ research.

Three oral research reports using PowerPoint are given: a) before leaving for the field the student explains the proposed research proposal, b) at the midterm there is a progress report, and c) a presentation is given based on the research project and final paper. This allows colleagues, advisors, public and staff to participate in the student’s research progress. We consider the final oral presentation as a preliminary step to doing the same in national and international symposiums in the students’ professional fields (Table 3).

Student Applied Research and Its Contribution

As stated, most of the ACM research would be considered “applied research” and objectives include: a) ensure that students learn to conduct all the steps of a “mini-thesis”, and b) focus on interdisciplinary themes combining natural and social sciences and humanities. In most cases, students focus on current challenges in Costa Rican society or at a Central American or international level. As an example of these projects, the May 22, 2013 symposium for the Spring 2013 students included research themes which involved: a) how tourism influences the artisanal identity in Brunca artwork, b) adolescent tobacco knowledge and perception in a rural community, c) public health related to dengue knowledge and perception in a rural community, d) interactions between humans and white-faced capuchins in a resort restaurant, e) rural community perspectives of a national park, f) economic analysis of the impact of “responsible” fishing on artisanal fishing in a coastal town, g) reduction of Monilia roreri infection in an organic cacao plantation using a natural fungus, and h) factors related to infection risk of coffee plants by coffee leaf rust (Table 3).

ACM fosters in students a strong sense of responsibility as researchers and commitment to the goal of making a meaningful contribution to the local communities (agricultural or fishing cooperative, tourist resort, protected area, etc.) where they carry out their research. Some students provide their local communities and organizations with printed copies, disks or posters of their research. A program goal is to increase the availability of student research findings and recommendations that can serve to empower both students and local organizations.

Over the last half century, the ACM Costa Rica experience has impacted many of its 1 000 research students and others in different forms. This includes: a) learning to carry out structured applied research, b) developing professional skills in many fields, c) a strong sense of student and local organization empowerment, and d) being able to generate knowledge of benefit to Costa Rica with respect to past development, current realities and future opportunities within the country. We have included comments from several former students dating back to 1968 (Table 4).


Associated Colleges of the Midwest. (2013a, October 8). History. Retrieved from ACM Expand your world. Associated Colleges of the Midwest: History         [ Links ]

Associated Colleges of the Midwest. (2013b, October 8). Mission. Retrieved from ACM Expand your world. Associated Colleges of the Midwest:         [ Links ]

Associated Colleges of the Midwest. (2013c, October 8). Off-campus program history. Retrieved from ACM Expand your world. Associated Colleges of the Midwest: program history         [ Links ]

Brewer, L. & Cunningham, K. (2010). Capturing study abroad´s transformative potential. In L. Brewer & K. Cunningham (Eds.). Integrating study abroad into the curriculum. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.         [ Links ]

Dennis, P. (Compiler) (1989). 25 Anniversary: A.C.M. Costa Rica 1964-1989. Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Costa Rica Programs, San José, Costa Rica.         [ Links ]

National Institutes of Health. (2013, October 15). Protecting Human Research Participants. NIH Office of Extramural Research. Retrieved from National Institutes of Health:         [ Links ]

1. Associated Colleges of the Midwest, San Pedro de Montes de Oca, Costa Rica; Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin;
2. Associated Colleges of the Midwest, San Pedro de Montes de Oca, Costa Rica;
3. Associated Colleges of the Midwest, San Pedro de Montes de Oca, Costa Rica;

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