By Christie Vogt
On October 9th and 11th, a group of our third through sixth graders visited the conservation area Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Conchal for their third of four planned excursions. The trips have been organized to give students the opportunity to observe and document changes in the ecosystem throughout the year. For this trip, the kids were asked to compare the state of the forest in the dry season to the wet season.
Our guide, Rocio Rojas, and her assistants started off the October 11th visit by asking the students to sit in a circle on the ground so that she could briefly talk about the expectations and rules to be followed for the afternoon (quiet voices, stay in a line, hands off wildlife, leave nothing behind). At first, the kids were reluctant to sit down and get their bejeweled jeans or freshly washed pants dirty. They looked at each other, wondering who would be the first to brave the dirt. Some squatted slightly, others remained standing, one or two actually plopped down. Rocio was patient but firm and would not continue until all the students embraced nature and got all the way down. “It’s just dirt!”
Now sitting cross-legged, the students began to fill in some of the blanks on their worksheets, answering questions about the scientific method and their observational tasks for the day. They then each received a magnifying glass and ruler and were up on their feet, ready to walk down the path into the thick of the forest.
As we wandered through the trees, they noted the lack of water due to our not-so-rainy rainy season here in Costa Rica. Rocio showed them specific plants, and asked the kids to measure the leaves with their rulers. They were encouraged to touch fallen leaves and notice the varying textures, soft and smooth on one side, fuzzy on the other. “Smell this,” Rocio urged. The students leaned into the wildlife, noting a licorice smell; “It’s anise!”
Further down the path, “Look, but don’t touch,” Rocio commanded as the kids observed another type of tree, full of red biting ants. With their magnifying glasses, they observed the creatures scurrying up close. Later, they were asked to measure water levels at a certain point in the forest (zero), and then measure the air temperature. For some, it appeared to be their first time reading a thermometer, and they were reluctant to announce their measurement to the group, for fear of reading it wrong. With a bit more prodding, we learned how hot the forest was in Celsius and Fahrenheit. “Our friends here from the United States use Fahrenheit,” the kids were told, “while here in Costa Rica, we use Celsius.”
In the moist ground, we also came upon animal tracks that the kids excitedly tried to identify. One of the prints came from a deer; “The biggest I’ve ever seen!” declared one of the assistant guides. Another paw print appeared to be from a feline—potentially a puma—we were told. “A puma?” we looked at each other a bit anxiously, wondering if a set of eyes was watching us. A mischievous niño or two who shall remain anonymous also tried to fake out our guides, creating their own mysterious animal tracks in the mud and then summoning the experts to observe; they weren’t so gullible.
We headed back towards the entrance where the students returned their scientific tools, thanked our hosts, and received gifts of snacks and workbooks to take home. The kids left Conchal with a bit more dirt on their clothes and hopefully with an increased curiosity and respect for their local ecosystem.