Students Study Ecosystems in Costa Rica and Compete in Annual Soccer Game

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on April 17, 2019, No Comments

Over spring break, the Biology of Tropical Ecosystems class at East Stroudsburg University took its annual study abroad trip to Costa Rica, accompanied by professors Thomas LaDuke, P.h.D., associate professor of biological sciences; Terry Master, Ph.D, professor of biological sciences; and Howard P. (Sandy) Whidden, Ph.D. professor of biological sciences.

The class began their trip at the El Zota Biological Field Station in Heredia Province, Tigre, Costa Rica, which is a warm, lowland tropical rainforest that has over 2,000 acres of protected land. They then visited Villa Lapas, a rainforest eco-resort located in Puntarenas Province, and ended the trip at the Albright College field station located in a seasonally dry forest on the west side of Costa Rica. These field stations offer diverse climates for students to study and are equipped with cabins, classrooms, dining halls, and laboratories; along with systems of trails and bridges that cross over creeks and swamps, which offer students an immersive experience to not just a different climate, but an entirely different culture.

“This is usually the students’ first time being exposed to another culture,” says Dr. LaDuke. “They come to study and experience wildlife like never before, it is an explosion of biology and biological systems which are much more complex than what they have seen in the Pocono Mountains. It’s hands on and interactive — students really get the opportunity to see the complexity of how different environments and ecosystems work together.”

Reannon Zangakis, a junior majoring in biology with a concentration in integrated organismal biology, says, “I’m grateful that this class is offered because it opens opportunities to have this type of exposure and experience. I have come to realize that I want to go there again and help with further conservation efforts.” Zangakis says that she, and many other students, were attracted to this class and trip because it highlights organismal-ecology conservation, specifically in Costa Rica, which is among the top countries with the highest percentage of protected land in the world, has some of the highest levels of bio-diversity, and is an opportunity to see a different environment and types of organisms one would never get to in North America. Zangakis says, “It was really cool being able to search for things on our own, and when we found something we could yell, ‘Hey, I found something!’ and a professor would know right away what it was. Sometimes, it would be something as simple as lifting up a leaf or seeing something scurry across the path.”

Riley Lougee, a junior majoring in biology with a concentration in secondary education who is also a member of the ESU men’s soccer team, attended the trip and says, “My favorite part of the trip was this one night we went on a really late-night hike. It was amazing to see all of the different species we didn’t get to see during the day. At one point, we all turned off our lights to call owls using pre-recorded owl callings which, at first, was quite terrifying, but it turned out to be an awesome time calling in owls and hearing them respond while getting closer and closer.” Zangakis adds, “During the night hike we got to see glass and red-eyed tree frogs. The cool thing about the glass frog is that it is almost completely transparent — we could see their intestines and organs!”

Every spring the class goes to Costa Rica, they are sure to be challenged in a soccer game by the staff of the field station. This began in 2000, when a staff member of the El Zota field station named Albert said, “Want to play football?” As soccer is a great passion of Costa Rica, ESU’s students usually “get crushed,” as LaDuke put it, but this year was different because they had one of ESU’s men’s soccer players on the trip.

“As soon as I heard that they usually play a soccer game in Costa Rica, I was extremely excited to play and see how much it was different from here. When I played it was amazing to see how much these guys loved the game,” said Lougee. “Some of us played barefoot like they did and you could tell our feet were not used to playing soccer like theirs were, but this just added to the experience. It seemed like down there they focus more on individual skill, but the game we played overall was just a whole lot of fun and it was amazing to get the experience.”

LaDuke says, “Many students find that they can relate to the Costa Ricans in a more intense and personal way than before, because although they don’t speak the same language, when you step on the field, the connection and bond becomes much stronger. We find that we have same interests and likes, and after it’s over it’s all smiles and high fives.”

Biology of Tropical Ecosystems is offered every spring semester at ESU and many of the credit hours come from the trip to Costa Rica where students can study the organisms and the environment themselves. If you would like more information or would like to register for this class, contact any of the professors: Dr. Thomas LaDuke at, Dr. Terry Master at, or Dr. Howard Whidden at

Photos used to accompany this story were taken by Tianna Johnson, a graudate student studying biology from Kane, Pa.