High-impact learning is not restricted to the classroom or the lab at Texas A&M University. It’s not even restricted to Texas or the United States, as a group of 11 undergraduate students just back from Costa Rica can attest.
The students ― from Texas A&M as well as several other U.S. universities ― spent part of their summer immersed in research and field work at Texas A&M’s Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Isidro, Costa Rica. Their experience was funded by a $557,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant awarded to Chris Houser, associate professor of geography in the College of Geosciences, and Antony Cahill, associate professor in civil engineering.
“We gave these students the opportunity to work one-on-one with Texas A&M faculty advisors from several disciplines who taught them essential research skills. They also learned how to do field work and how to carry out and deliver the results of their original research,” Houser said.
The opportunity attracted 148 applicants for 11 NSF REU spots. Each applicant had to submit two letters of reference.
“That means that 396 professors in universities around the country were exposed to Texas A&M’s undergraduate research program and our extraordinary facility in Costa Rica. That increased our national visibility significantly,” explained Houser.
“The two Texas A&M students chosen for the program acted as ‘Aggie ambassadors,’ introducing Texas A&M to outstanding students from other institutions,” Houser said. “That put us in the position of being able to attract highly qualified candidates to our graduate programs at Texas A&M, while also placing our students into some of the best graduate schools in the country.
“These undergraduates discovered the joy of creating new knowledge. We’re expecting multiple publications and several national conference presentations to come out of this research. Two students are attending a national conference in Ohio where they will meet their idol, noted environmentalist E.O. Wilson. The list of benefits is substantial.”
The NSF grant was the direct result of an undergraduate research experience conducted in 2009 by Houser and Steven Quiring, also from the geography department, when 20 Texas A&M freshmen, coming from various majors and colleges across campus, spent their spring break doing their geography lab work in the Costa Rican rainforest.
They were among the first to make use of Texas A&M’s Soltis Center — a fully equipped facility set within 250 acres of primary and second growth forests, made possible by the generous donation of a 1955 Texas A&M graduate, Charles William Soltis and his wife, Wanda.
Houser and his class did the lab component of their geography class getting dirty ―and bonding ― in the jungle.
“It was a unique opportunity to expose students to physical geography in a hands-on and exciting way: surveying a mountainside, measuring the speed and amount of water flowing in the Chachagua River and zip-lining through the rain forest canopy,” Houser explained.
Susan Stallings, a senior international studies major, said, “What other time do you get to learn about geography while you’re actually standing in the cloud forest? The Costa Rica study abroad experience takes what you would normally learn while sitting in the classroom and translates it into reality.”
“This was definitely a high-impact learning experience,” Houser said. “Our study-abroad students don’t just learn about topographic maps in the classroom; they do it in the field with a piece of string and a stick. There’s a greater rigor involved, which enhances their problem solving and critical thinking skills.”
The students came back to Texas A&M to take the lecture component of the class with their peers.
“However, when all the students took their final exam, the students who had studied abroad for a week scored a statistically significant half-grade point higher than their peers. The results were astounding, and so significant that they are being published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education,” Houser noted.
“When you can prove that a brief study abroad experience not only improved cognitive learning outcomes, but also increased engagement and created new social networks, you’ve got a highly valuable program,” he added. “You get hot, dirty, soaking wet from the rain and falling down in the mud, plus you meet a lot of snakes. But that’s what makes it fun. You’re immersed in a subject rather than simply reading about it.”
According to Lexie Altinger, a junior health education major, “Dr. Houser did a superb job to ensure this trip was not only a blast, but also academically enriching; he incorporated study nights for us after every lab. I had no idea I could learn so much, while having so much fun. What solidified the academic information for me were the hands-on experiences in the actual environments.”
“Of course, you always need to be on, ready to engage in an impromptu lesson; there’s no such thing as an eight-hour day or downtime,” Houser stated.
In fact, a major benefit of the program occurred during one of the group’s informal sessions sitting on the balcony of the Soltis Center.
“That’s when we came up with the concept for the NSF grant,” said Houser. “You could say we wrote it up and got it funded through bonding.”
“The Costa Rica study-abroad trip impacted me in a lot of ways,” said Stallings. “I acquired skills like surveying and mapping, but I also learned about a new culture and what it was like to be in a different country. I came back a changed person, stronger and more capable than I could have ever imagined.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be more accepting and knowledgeable about the world around them?” added Altinger.
“After living in a rain forest, the students return as better global citizens. They also have an enhanced appreciation for the Texas climate, so they can better understand the implications of our drought,” Houser said.”Several students who participated in this study abroad program switched their major to geosciences. With the environment and climate change already pressing global issues, that will have a positive impact on Texas and the world in the years to come.”