Costa Rica trip provides ‘lived experience’ for success in the classroom

November 14, 2017

Students in forest in Costa RicaFor Octavia Tripp and other members of the Elementary Education program in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, success as a classroom teacher depends on being able to make a connection and understanding where a student is coming from.

“When you are teaching, you must be aware of your students’ lived experiences,” Tripp explained. “My purpose as a professor is to prepare our students to lead their own classrooms, and that means helping them learn to recognize their own students’ lived experiences. If you do not understand your students, it is very difficult to help them learn. Our mission has always been to have our students work with diverse populations, because that is what they will encounter every day in their classrooms.”

Students take notes in natureTo that end, Tripp, the Faculty Lead of the Education Study Abroad Outreach program,  traveled with College of Education colleagues Jamie Harrison, Angela Love, and David Laurencio for 16-days of language and cultural immersion on a mountaintop coffee farm in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Along with a dozen pre-service teachers, the group took Spanish lessons, taught English as a Second Language to local workers and schoolchildren, visited numerous natural sites as part of their environmental education, and spent time in the homes of local families.

Language immersion first step in cultural immersion

Jamie Harrison specializes in teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).  She emphasizes the importance of incorporating ESOL skills and knowledge into the curriculum.

“Starting in the summer of 2014, all students in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching began taking our ESOL infused literacy classes,” she said. “When a school system rapidly changes in terms of its language demographics, this can be very challenging for teachers. Requiring our pre-service teachers to develop the skills they will need before they go into the classroom supports their future work in classrooms, and will make our graduates even more valuable. We had the great opportunity to do that and much more in Costa Rica.”

Group Photo“Immersion in a second language was one of our goals for the trip, but we also got some surprises once we were there,” she said. “A group of Nicaraguans was there, working on the coffee plantation, so our pre-service teachers were able to teach them as well as the local school children. And of course our students took in-depth, two-hour Spanish classes while there, so in terms of language immersion we very much met our objective.”

Sustainability, environmental awareness, core part of Costa Rican culture

Anglea Love helped coordinate cultural immersion opportunities for the pre-service teachers. She did so with the help of members of a local family, Daniel Vargas and Jose Luis Vargas, who manage the Monteverde Life coffee farm.

“Being involved with the Monteverde community was a great experience for all of us,” Love said. “But there are many other Costa Rican communities that emphasize sustainable farming and environmental education. This is a major community focus, and it begins when the children are in the earliest years of their education. Everyone embraces it.”

Being natives of the area, the Vargas family shared much of the history of the surrounding community. The plantation was originally owned by just one person, and everyone else provided the labor. But the local people organized and had the opportunity to purchase the land, which both raised the peoples’ standard of living, and reinforced the importance of sustainable practices.

Students touring“Our students were able to see so much about how this community worked together to protect the land for its emphasis on eco-tourism, and how they networked to share space for markets and other things. We intentionally became immersed in the area’s culture, the families, the language, and its history. Our students just loved this. And interestingly, we also made an Alabama connection. Marvin Rockwell founded the Quaker School there, the Monteverde Friends School, and he was from Fairhope, Alabama, which has its own history of environmental awareness. So our students were able to learn about the area’s ‘lived experiences’ in everything they did.”

Emphasis on environmental education

David Laurencio is the collections manager of tetrapods at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Science Education, studying with Dr. Melody Russell. He also happens to be fluent in Spanish, a native of Costa Rica, and an enthusiastic environmental educator. He joined the group to emphasize “citizen science.” (He also came back with hundreds of gorgeous photos, which you can see here.)

Group waits for boat“Our pre-service teachers are not science majors, but Dr. Tripp wanted them to become immersed in a different culture, and also to be exposed to new ideas. When as an undergraduate I became professionally interested in biology, my focus was and has remained on Costa Rica. The country has been stable politically and has made a huge commitment to conservation and eco-tourism so it was a perfect place for me to do what I love. And Costa Rica is amazingly rich in its natural environment. It’s the size of West Virginia, but has about five percent of the world’s biodiversity. That’s really hard to imagine.”

Laurecio’s job was to facilitate understanding of the area’s biodiversity, but also to help the students in informal science techniques so they would become better teachers.

“The current emphasis on testing makes it challenging to be a good science teacher,” he said. “Everyone loves animals, and I look at biology as a gateway to science. Our children need access to exploring the world around them. The old saying is a good saying: ‘No child left inside.’ Children need to be outside, exploring and feeling comfortable in their natural environment. I could see how our pre-service teachers could be intimidated by the idea of teaching science, so I wanted to help them embrace what was around them in this beautiful and unique place.”

Laurencio said he began seeing big changes in just one day.
“Citizen science is nothing more than having non-scientists participate in the scientific process,” he said. “After all, that’s the original tradition of science, drawing conclusions from what you observe around you. Think of things like the Christmas bird count that is creating real data sets. Technology is driving the current explosion in citizen science, and we just wanted to share that with our students.”

He was able to do this in rainforests, active volcano sites, and on local farms. Laurencio said it was a learning experience for him as well as the pre-service teachers.

Animal Activity“They did great, especially in terms of their evolution over the weeks we were there. Every day I could see them growing as educators and as global citizens. Besides the science, just seeing the natural love they have for children, combined with their ESOL experiences, made this a really special trip. It’s hard for me to imagine creating a stronger, more lasting impact on them than what happened in Monteverde.”

‘It all comes together in the classroom’

Research shows that cultural immersion is the best way to have students work successfully with diverse populations. Octavia Tripp knows this. She set up the Coast Rican visit to be sure that would happen to her Auburn students.

“It was so important to me to ensure that our students got away from what they were used to,” she said. “We were living like the locals lived. We were in the clouds. At night it was windy and wet. I think the students would say they loved the food, and the idea of simple living, but they had beans and rice three times a day for more than two weeks. Every day they were stretched mentally, physically, and emotionally. The adjustments they had to make were real. They’d tell you they wouldn’t take anything for the experiences they had, but it was tough on everyone.”

In addition to visiting schools and natural sites, the pre-service teachers went in pairs to live with local families. They cleaned, cooked, slept, and lived “la pura vida,” as the Costa Ricans call it.

Students collaborate indoors“I talk a lot about understanding lived experiences to help make you a great teacher, and that’s what happened here,” Tripp said. “If they weren’t living with local families, they stayed in hostels with bunk beds. They were up early every morning, meeting challenges. We took them out of their privileged environments and achieved our goal: to live like the locals live, and reflect on what that means as part of our becoming great teachers.”

Tripp did add that her colleagues made up a “Dream Team” of leaders and guides for the pre-service teachers.

“Dr. Harrison helped our students be great ESOL teachers. Dr. Love provided experiences where they could absorb history and culture. David (Laurencio) was much more than a great citizen science teacher: he was like a big brother to the students and they would go to him first with their problems. We became like a family. We told them that until we work together we are nothing. By the end of the trip, we were together.”

“I certainly had my own issues, just like everyone else,” Tripp said. “I have a bad knee and hip. I did not enjoy dealing with the rain and the bugs. But in the end it all worked out. We must show our students that we are committed to seeing that they have experiences that will support them in their classrooms when they have students with a wide variety of lived experiences. So my purpose is to prepare them for the real world of their classrooms. Every student matters. Largely as a result of this experience, I know that our graduates will be able to meet that student wherever he or she is coming from. And that can make all the difference.”

Oh. And what about the coffee in Monteverde?

“Whoa! My goodness! That’s another story for another day.”

See below for a sampling of student reflections on their trip to Costa Rica:

Group Photo

Studying abroad in Monteverde, Costa Rica was an incredible opportunity for me as a future educator. A highlight of the program was observing a class in a rural one-room school. The school had one teacher who taught a class with children ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. It was eye-opening to reflect on the similarities and differences between Costa Rican and American schools. My group and I had the opportunity to celebrate a local cultural holiday, Dia de Guanacaste, at two schools in the area. We were immersed in the beautiful culture of the province as we ate customary foods and danced traditional dances alongside elementary students. Through this program, I’ve gained an awareness of cultural influences on learning. I have a better understanding and appreciation of all cultures which will impact how I educate diverse students on diverse topics. When I have my own class, I plan on sharing my Costa Rican experiences with my students and celebrating all cultures in my classroom.  Susannah Fields


Costa Rica was an incredible experience for me. It was my very first time out of the country, and I expected to be incredibly homesick. While I did miss my family, I absolutely loved being able to learn about a different culture and see things I wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. One of the many things I learned from this trip was how important it is and how simple it is to live a sustainable lifestyle. The people of Monteverde learned in their schools ways to protect the environment, work with nature, grow their own food, and how to respect and coexist with nature. I learned how to be outside of my comfort zone, and change my perspective in many different areas. Costa Rica was absolutely beautiful, and I’m so thankful that I was blessed with the opportunity to be part of this trip. Amia Robinson


Going to Costa Rica was eye-opening for me. I learned so much about the people, culture, and educational values through our community members. Our exchanges ranged from students and parents, teachers and administrators, business owners, hostel management personnel, taxi drivers, and other students from different countries who were going through their own study abroad experiences.

The people were so friendly and eagerly welcomed us into their lives. They listened to our stories: who we are, where we came from, what we were doing in Costa Rica, and they shared with us their own stories. There was no judgment when we couldn’t speak Spanish; we weren’t ridiculed when we used gestures and “Spanglish” to communicate. The Costa Rican culture was something we had to get used to, but I will always appreciate the simple lives that the people led. They were completely content in their lifestyle, a lifestyle that is very different from what we are used to.

One thing all of the Costa Ricans we met had in common was their educational values. They expressed to us that education opens up new doors and provides them with opportunities to become leaders of a better world. They stressed the important of not only receiving a good education, but also learning a second language. Learning to speak and write in English would open up more doors of better opportunities for learners.

Thinking about everything I learned and the people that I will continue to remember, I can say that they left an everlasting mark on me and I like to think that we also left a memorable mark on them. Bidoor Ridha


The opportunity to travel to Monteverde, Costa Rica with the College of Education provided me with experiences that have broadened my perspectives on multiple aspects of education. Throughout our trip, we were able to meet several Monteverde locals who gave us insight into their specific areas of expertise. The community, as a whole, values the environment in a way I had never experienced. They make it a priority to educate others about the importance of conservation and sustainability. Our group visited many different Costa Rican schools and were able to see the prevalence of environmental education incorporated in the curriculum.  In addition, our group was able to explore the diverse environment that Costa Rica has to offer. In our days there, we traveled to an active volcano, took several tours through the rainforest, experienced the natural hot springs, spent time on a farm, and witnessed the process of coffee production. We saw and studied many different plants and animals and learned about the interconnected life cycle between the two. Overall, the time abroad to Costa Rica provided me with new ideas, knowledge and a perspective about education that I otherwise would never have received. I will forever look back on this trip with appreciation for the people and places that gave me an invaluable experience that I will carry with me in my future classroom in all other areas of my life. Landyn Foxworthy