Go off the beaten path and experience sustainability in action. Spend a semester in Costa Rica, home to rainforests, volcanoes, rushing waterfalls, and a laid-back culture that reflects the national motto: “Pura Vida.” Immerse yourself in the country’s many national parks, farms, and tropical ecosystems full of incredible biodiversity. Design and conduct a rigorous field research project and learn how Costa Ricans are creatively addressing conservation and development issues.
Explore the cloud forests of Monteverde, home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity, to study tropical ecology and sustainable land management
Take a week-long expedition to Panama’s Chiriquí Highlands, a lush, forested region of volcanic peaks, integrated coffee farms, rich Nbäge-Buglé culture, and perpetual spring-like weather
Go behind the scenes at a local coffee farm and sustainable permaculture homestead to learn how Costa Ricans have successfully combined agriculture and conservation
All students are welcome to apply for our need-based financial aid. Students who exhibit financial need for their program will be offered SFS financial aid. SFS aid is offered through a combination of scholarships, grants and loans.
Pell Grant Match
SFS matches Federal Pell Grant funding for students applying to an SFS semester program.
Many SFS students receive aid through their home institutions or other outside sources, so check with your financial aid office to see what aid may apply to an SFS program.
Itinerary varies from term to term and is subject to change. Program activities take place 6 days a week with one day free.
Week 1: ¡Bienvenido a Costa Rica! Move into dorms, meet roommates and SFS staff, and attend program orientation. Tour Atenas. Field trip to the rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park and Manú. Mist netting exercise with bats and birds. Visit El Progreso integrated farm: Learn about agroecosystems, sustainable/organic agriculture. Tour a Dole banana plantation and learn about large-scale agricultural impacts.
Week 2: Spanish language lessons begin. Visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve: Learn about climate change impacts and tourism management and observe iconic species such as the resplendent quetzal and the three-wattled bellbird. Taste locally produced coffee at a family-owned farm.
Week 3: Field trip to the Tárcoles River, Carara National Park, and a small fishing community. Boat tour with field lecture on mangrove ecology and water pollution. Hike in Pacific lowland forests and learn about bird ecology and road noise impacts. Visit San José to learn about sustainable urban development, history, and art, and see the University of Costa Rica’s campus butterfly farm. Stream restoration activity. Outreach with local students to practice Spanish.
Week 4: Overnight expedition to Santa Rosa National Park, one of the best examples of ecological restoration in the tropics. Hiking lectures on seed dispersal, forest regeneration, ecological corridors, habitat connectivity, and bioindicators. Apply the scientific method to answer an ecological research question in the park, collecting/analyzing data and writing up the results. Lectures on fire ecology, dry forest restoration, and community involvement in conservation.
Week 5: Design research studies at the SFS Center orchards: organic management of pests and diseases. Lectures on climate change, invasive species, and extinction. Day-long homestay with a family in Atenas, learn about Costa Rican family structure, music, and culture. Help plant a garden at a local school.
Week 6: Midterm exams for Principles of Resource Management, Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Development, and Environmental Ethics and Development. Spanish language exam. Mid-semester break begins – 6 days of independent student travel.
Week 7: Return from mid-semester break. Design an ecology experiment on the SFS campus. Data collection and analysis for orchard management exercise and campus ecology experiment. Lectures on emerging diseases, ethics of tourism, women and gender in sustainable development, and Indigenous rights and roles in conservation. Introduction to Directed Research (DR) methods. Extended weekend away for independent student travel.
Week 8: Week-long expedition to Panama: Visit cloud forests in the Chiriquí Highlands and learn about sustainable tourism in Boquete. Visit local coffee, honey, and vegetable farms. Visit an Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé community to learn about culture, environmental ethics, and human rights.
Week 9: Return to SFS Center in Costa Rica. Lectures on GMOs, food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and agroforestry. Learn about sustainable coffee production and carbon sequestration at Toledo organic coffee farm. Partner with community organizations in Atenas to collect data on plastics use and create a plastic-free zone in town. Intro to statistics and hypothesis testing, DR project selection.
Week 10: Final exams for Principles of Resource Management, Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Development, and Environmental Ethics and Development. Field lab: use GIS to create a map for recreation and protected areas management in the region. Lectures on research ethics and data collection in the field. Literature review for DR project.
Week 11: DR literature review wraps up and data collection begins in the field. Overview of science communication and presentation. Help the town of Atenas with community recycling and plant trees around community-owned water springs.
Week 12: DR data collection continues. Extended weekend away for independent student travel.
Week 13: Data collection continues. Data analysis: organize, analyze, and write up your results in a scientific paper.
Week 14: DR final papers due. Create a presentation and poster based on your research, present to students, staff, and community members.
Week 15: Re-entry exercises and room cleanup. Last day in Atenas, closing activities. Head home.
This academically rigorous program follows a six-day/week schedule. The interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to help students actively discover and understand the complexities of environmental, social, and economic issues in Costa Rica. Read more about the SFS program model.
Major academic themes include:
Climate change and tropical ecosystems
Agroforestry and conservation
National park management
On the Sustainable Development Studies program, you will take three 4-credit disciplinary courses, one 2-credit language and culture course, and a 4-credit capstone Directed Research course. Courses are participatory in nature and are designed to foster inquiry and active learning. Each course combines lectures, field exercises, assignments, tests, and research. All courses are taught in English.
Click on each course to view a description and download the syllabus
SFS 2050 Language, Culture, and Society of Costa Rica (2 credits)
This course contains two distinct but integrated modules. The Spanish language module offers listening, oral, and written practice of the Spanish language at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of proficiency. Students engage in oral and written grammar and vocabulary exercises, and develop Spanish language skills and tools required for their research projects. The sociocultural module helps students to develop a more refined understanding of Costa Rican culture and the various communities with which we work. Students participate in lectures, field exercises, and other activities including a homestay—all of which teach them strategies and skills for working with people in a community-based research context and help them to assist with community extension projects.
SFS 3740 Principles of Resource Management - Costa Rica (4 credits)
This course is designed to examine the connection between society and natural resources, and how application of management tools can lead to biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. This course introduces underlying concepts and practical tools used in addressing complex environmental problems, including protected area planning and management, guidelines for ecologically sustainable development, and environmental impact assessment. Students examine local case studies using the theory and practice learned in this course.
SFS 3770 Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Development (4 credits)
This course examines the ecological impact of human activity, especially agriculture, in a tropical country. Students study the agro-ecology of important crops, with emphasis on biodiversity as the source of production means and materials. Students identify renewable and nonrenewable resources and examine their historical use. We study the long-term and
large-scale impact of local agricultural and other practices on the national and global environment (e.g., water pollution, waste management, climate change). Students examine options for alternative resources use, land restoration, and preservation from ecological, sociopolitical, and economic viewpoints, and use basic field techniques and measurements to examine the efficacy of different options.
SFS 3820 Environmental Ethics and Development - Costa Rica (4 credits)
This course addresses the intersection of the human and environmental sides of sustainable development in Costa Rica. Linking human rights to sustainability is an emerging field that combines the important dimensions of economic and social rights with the environmental underpinnings of sustainability. We use a multidisciplinary methodology to cover themes of local and global social and environmental policies, valuing of and access to ecosystem services, development aid, agrarian reform, indigenous rights and local livelihoods, and climate change. Students examine the roles of local people, government, and local and international non-governmental actors in the implementation of sustainable development models. Students also review specific local case studies to explore the empowerment of local people and their reaction to local and non-local proposals for sustainable development.
SFS 4910 Directed Research - Costa Rica (4 credits)
This course prepares students to distinguish hidden assumptions in scientific approaches and separate fact from interpretation, cause from correlation, and advocacy from objectivity. Students learn specific tools including: experimental design; field techniques; basic descriptive statistics; and parametric and non-parametric quantitative analysis. Emphasis is placed on succinct scientific writing, graphic and tabular presentation of results, and effective delivery of oral presentations.
You will gain practical skills in the field such as: GIS use and applications, species identification, habitat and biodiversity assessment, forest soundscape techniques, songbird mist-netting, tourism impact assessment methods, basic Spanish language skills, research design and implementation, quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, and research presentation.
You will visit different ecosystems and communities which may include lowland tropical rainforest, tropical cloud forest, Pacific coastal rainforest, dry forests of the Guanacaste province, national parks, agroecosystems, fishing villages, farms, volcanoes, mangroves, coastal ecosystems, and the highlands of northern Panama.
In the Directed Research course, each student completes a field research project under the mentorship of a faculty member – beginning with data collection and analysis and concluding with a research paper and presentation. Project subject areas span ecology, natural resource management, conservation science, environmental ethics, and socioeconomics.
The Center is an active organic farm overlooking the vibrant Central Valley, where green is the predominant color as far as the eye can see. Dorms and classrooms intermingle with orchards and gardens, while Center dog Hera keeps watch over it all. The friendly town of Atenas is a 10-minute cab ride away, offering restaurants, shops, parks, and cultural events.
Dorm living with 4-person bunkrooms
Classroom, library, computer lab, and laundry room
Open-air porch with hammocks and chairs
Dining hall with scenic valley views, and on-site cooking staff
Swimming pool, soccer field, basketball court, and pizza oven
Outdoor classroom and hiking trails
Click on the icons below to learn more about our Center in Costa Rica.