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Crossing Borders:
Developing Interdisciplinary Pedagogies for a Changing World

"As soon as our students arrived on the Pitzer farm they recorded 40 species of butterflies on the property. When they checked their butterfly nets on their way up a hill, they passed rocks with petroglyphs, which are rocks carved out by pre-Columbian people about 500-1,000 years ago. The attributes of the property are a metaphor for the interdisciplinary nature of the Costa Rican experience."

Pitzer College’s standard scholarly collaboration flows effortlessly between Melinda Herrold-Menzies, professor of Environmental Studies, and Cheryl Baduini, Joint Science professor of biology. This fall the professors integrated and customized their marine and human ecology curriculum for students who participated in Pitzer’s unique Costa Rica study abroad program.

The students completed a month-long intensive language class just outside the Costa Rica capital city of San Jose where they were immersed in the culture and lived with a host family. Equipped with a strong command of the Spanish language, the students traveled four hours southwest of San Jose to the beautiful 150-acre tropical rainforest land owned by Pitzer College. For the remaining weeks of the semester, the students stayed with new host families near the Pitzer center.

Ocean View

The Pitzer property is mostly recovering pasture land and secondary forest defined as rainforest that has been disturbed in some way, naturally or unnaturally. Adjacent and west of the property is the Hacienda Baru, a nature reserve of 800 acres, which contains relatively untouched primary rainforest, and secondary rainforest, which has been recovering naturally since 1971.

The new Costa Rica program includes a semester in which students receive ten days of instruction each from Herrold-Menzies and Baduini, Pitzer Professor of Environmental Studies Paul Faulstich and Joint Science Professor of Biology Don McFarlane. Costa Rica on-site Program Director Isabel Arguello Chaves assists the students with their daily schedule planning and provides instruction in Advanced Spanish for Ecology.

Costa Rica Group

Interdisciplinary study occurs in much the same way in Costa Rica as it does in the classrooms of Pitzer, but comes with the added challenge of a different culture and language.

“The professors must also provide as smooth a transition as possible for the students since their individual teaching styles vary—we each ask the students to think a little bit differently. They have to think in multi-dimensions to understand a topic that may have biological as well as cultural facets. It’s challenging but fulfilling for them,” Baduini said.

Baduini describes how aquatic and human biology merge to examine and address current social and environmental challenges: “An interesting cross relationship occurs when students look at the social aspect of an issue such as water rights and how they are changing in the area, and then they explore a biological aspect by examining the ecology of freshwater streams in developed secondary versus primary rainforest areas. The students examine indicators of stream health: sedimentation, turbidity, nutrients, temperature changes, conductivity, bacteria level—the parameters used to determine stream health.”

When students look at the sedimentation in streams when it rains versus when it is dry, they record greater saturation of sediments and implied run-off in secondary disturbed areas compared to primary rainforest areas, according to Baduini.

“This physical reason for sedimentation, run-off of nutrients, bacteria levels and erosion could be anticipated but it needs to be documented. This is where the interdisciplinary study falls into play: The students link the tropical research with the human ecology issue of the effects of earth moving and development of the rapid commercial development in Costa Rica,” Herrold-Menzies said.

Cheryl Baduini and Melinda Herrold-Menzies

The independent research project is the final and dominant activity for the students in their last three to four weeks of the semester. “I did not observe students struggling with trying to do interdisciplinary work. The students get the connection at Pitzer,” Baduini said. Herrold-Menzies added, “It is an ongoing skill that students are exposed to during their first year. It is the nature of a Pitzer education.”

The nature of Pitzer study abroad programs is to combine rigorous academic learning with the experience of total immersion in another culture. This is what occurred in the case of David Goldman ’07, who pursued a highly challenging interdisciplinary project by measuring water quality in different streams in tandem with measuring the local population’s perception of environmental change.

Goldman monitored developing environmental changes for comparison to the local people’s perception about the changes in a small town. His overall goal was to determine whether his theories are affirmed by what he found in the environment.

“David was interested in finding out if the development of second homes, hotels and nice subdivisions for the affluent correlated with people’s perception of what was really happening. And, can this be verified on the ground?” Herrold-Menzies said.

Students conduct systematic surveys of the people in towns to research the human component of their study and to identify public perception. They converse in Spanish with the local people, developers, their home stay families and individuals from the big tourist town down the road to gather their research.

“Pitzer students don’t just take stream measurements. They notice the details and ask why the numbers are higher or lower than what is expected. I am impressed by how they are willing to get their hands dirty, explore and are curious about the world around them,” Baduini said.

Herrold-Menzies explained the essence of interdisciplinary study: A student must be well-versed in the methodology of ecology and the methodologies of sociology and anthropology, so he or she can be an expert in two different fields and find a connection between them. She emphasized that you cannot do a little of this and that, but you have to have the skill to do both in an in-depth fashion.

“Your ecological work needs to be respected by ecologists in the field who do nothing but ecology, and the same with sociology. At Pitzer our Environmental Studies coursework combines sociology, science and human ecology. You need all three to understand the complex problems facing society,” Herrold-Menzies said.

As visitors to Costa Rica, professors and students aim to participate responsibly and observe the culture respectfully. Costa Rica is a country bubbling over with foreigners building second homes, vacationers and surfers, and those escaping for a simpler life (“la pura vida”). We hope our students offer the people in the local villages a different glimpse at foreigners—a compassion that inextricably binds science with humanity.

— Susan Andrews, Associate Vice President
for Marketing and Public Relations

Next

Stuart Goldstein '86 on Pitzer Opportunities
Professor Kate Rogers on Organizational Studies
Jacque Kaster Torrens '92 on Linked Disciplines
Team-Taught Courses Integral to Pitzer Experience
Professor Dana Ward on Political Psychology
Michael Pearson '06 on Breadth of Understanding
 

Costa Rica at a Glance

• Pitzer College’s Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology is a reserve located in a secondary tropical rainforest of Southwest Costa Rica, north of the Osa Peninsula, south of the Manual Antonio National Park, and a few kilometers inland from the coastal town of Dominical.

• Located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a population of
3 million and approximately 0.1 percent of the world’s land mass, constituting 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Rainforests are the most bio-diverse ecosystem on Earth.

• Costa Rican civilization dates back to pre-Columbian times and possesses a varied culture and is the intersection point for Mesoamerican and South American natives.

• Costa Rica’s economy is mostly based on agriculture (coffee, bananas, pineapples, ornamentals), and is also strong in ecotourism, electronics, financial outsourcing and software development.

• Costa Rica is home to spider, howler and white-faced monkeys, the three-toed sloth, tapirs, the elusive jaguar, 320 species of birds (including eight species of parrots), a variety of reptiles, industrious leaf cutter ants, and thousands of plant species including numerous orchids.

• Costa Rica has the second highest Internet usage for Latin America after Chile.