Pitzer in Costa Rica

Study Abroad - Pitzer in Costa Rica

Firestone Center sign, Pitzer College en Costa RicaStudents spend the first month in San José studying at the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), then move four hours southwest of San José and two kilometers from the Pacific Ocean to land Pitzer College owns in the tropical rainforest. The  150-acre reserve, known as the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology (FCRE), is home to pre-Columbian petroglyphs, a harvestable bamboo forest, a riparian zone with waterfalls and streams, secondary growth forest in former pasture, intentionally replanted hardwood forest, original rainforest, a four-pond water catchment system, a seedling nursery, and an Ecology Center with science and classroom facilities. With adjacent Hacienda Barú, a wildlife refuge of 800 acres to the west; the ecologically significant Osa Peninsula to the south; and Manuel Antonio National Park to the north, students have ready access to a variety of tropical ecosystems and rich biodiversity. To learn more about the Firestone Center, read the announcement Pitzer’s Firestone Center in Costa Rica Part of New UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, read the report [PDF] or visit us on Facebook. For a virtual tour: GIS Online Story Map

Notions of Family Film
Alumni Nick Popkey ’16 studied in Costa Rica while at Pitzer. His film ‘Notions of Family‘ captured the essence of the Pitzer in Costa Rica home stay experience. Watch Notions of Family.


  • Academics


    Course Credits
    Course Units
    Intensive Spanish
    Core Course – Costa Rican Studies
    Tropical Restoration Ecology
    Environment, People, and Restoration
    Independent Study Project
    One semester of Spanish language or its equivalent is strongly recommended.
    Students must be in good academic standing and have a 2.0 or higher GPA on a 4.0 scale.
    Grades for this program will be recorded on a Pitzer College transcript and included in the Pitzer GPA. Students are required to participate fully in all program components and are not allowed to withdraw from individual courses. Students must take all courses for a letter grade.
    Program Dates
    Fall: End of August to mid-December
    Spring: Late January to late May

    Intensive Spanish
    This 80-hour course in intermediate or advanced Spanish is taught in San José at the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), where students will stay for the first month of the program. As part of an integrated approach to the teaching of language and culture, students will also participate in a homestay with a Costa Rican family, receive lectures on Costa Rican culture, and take study trips in San José.

    Core Course – Costa Rican Studies
    During the first five weeks of the program, students will participate in the first half of the Pitzer Core Course: a seminar offered through ICADS entitled Latin American Perspectives on Justice and Sustainable Development. The course includes lectures, study trips in and around San José, discussion sessions, a variety of oral, interactive and written assignments and a longer study trip to Nicaragua.

    The second half of the Pitzer Core Course focuses on developing oral proficiency in Spanish while deepening students’ understanding of Costa Rican culture. This half of the core course facilitates students’ integration into surrounding communities through ongoing interviews and ethnographic work with local host families and community organizations. Students also complete a series of field book exercises designed to help students integrate personal experience with readings and lectures, as they reflect upon important issues and critically examine aspects of their own culture learning process. Finally, this half of the core course provides support for both conducting the Directed Independent Study project (DISP) research in Spanish as well as writing up the final project report and conducting an oral presentation to fellow students, program staff and local community. For Pitzer students, the core course will satisfy Pitzer’s Social Responsibility Praxis (SRX) requirement.

    Costa Rica-observation
    Observing leafcutter ants

    Tropical Restoration Ecology
    Using the Firestone Center as a biological field station, the course provides a field-intensive exploration of the terrestrial and marine ecology of the neotropical region, with an emphasis on Costa Rica and tropical restoration ecology. The course covers physical geography, biodiversity theory, and practical methods of data collection and analysis. Field and laboratory work focuses on the terrestrial, estuarine and marine ecosystems of southwestern Costa Rica, with additional visits to contrasting ecosystems. Special emphasis is given to the theory of restoration and its practice on the property of the Firestone Center. This course satisfies the natural science graduation requirement at Pitzer College. For students who have completed an introductory biology sequence, the course can be counted as an upper division Keck Biology and EA-Science elective by arrangement with the instructor.

    Environment, People and Restoration
    This course is designed to explore special topics in relation to the rich cultural and ecological resources available at the Firestone Center, its neighboring communities, and local protected areas. Topics change from year to year but may include conservation policy and governance, agroecology, and protected areas. Each course segment is taught as an intensive seminar that combines theoretical considerations, case studies, methodologies, and fieldwork.

    Independent Study Project
    Students may focus on one aspect of human or tropical restoration ecology to study in greater depth through an independent research project or internship. Students may also participate in one of the longitudinal research projects set up by scholars from the US and Costa Rica that contribute to the biological baseline assessment for the property. Some topics may have prerequisites. All projects require a final written report with a significant analytical component as well as other appropriate documentation of learning.

  • Study Trips

    Costa-Rica-Cerro_de_la_MuerteA wide range of study trips to enhance the curriculum is an important part of the educational program. Destinations change from semester to semester but possible trips include:

    Study Trip to Nicaragua

    Students may visit Nicaragua if current political conditions permit.

    National Parks of Costa Rica

    The national parks and reserves in Costa Rica harbor an estimated 75 percent of all Costa Rica’s species of flora and fauna, including species that have all but disappeared in neighboring countries. Students may visit Caño Island in Corcovado and Marina Ballena National Parks as part of their coursework.

    Marine Ecology in Bocas del Toro, Panama

    In this course module, major themes in a tropical marine setting will be covered. The module will be carried out in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro Panamá, a collection of 12 islands, where tropical rainforests meet the sea. Students will observe a gradient of ecosystems, beginning with the input of biological productivity from the forests into island mangrove systems. Next, students will move offshore to patch and fringing reef systems, and then out to an offshore ocean reef. We will also discuss the fragility of marine ecosystems with respect to changing climate and discuss why they should be conserved. The course has a significant field work component including daily snorkeling trips, kayaking, and hiking, along with class discussions.

    Pitzer College Tropical Marine Ecology video by Noland Lassiter, Pitzer ’15

    Sierpe River

    Sierpe, one of Costa Rica’s most important river systems, is a mecca for biodiversity. Although the focus of this study trip is to study the ecology of mangroves and why they are vital to the river, students have the opportunity to observe great numbers of plants and animals. One early morning trip can yield up to 50 different species of wading birds. Also, this is one of three rivers in Costa Rica where crocodiles and caiman abound. It is frequent that two species of monkeys are observed feeding or moving through the mangroves on this trip. The trip takes the class from an upstream fresh water system, through mangrove lagoons, to the river mouth, where fresh and salt water meet.  Students learn to distinguish among 8 species of mangroves using leaf structure, roots, and seeds. Several measurements are collected and species sighted are recorded for a lab exercise.  In addition, water samples are collected along several points of the river for comparison.
  • Independent Study Projects

    Costa Rica Research Fields

    Gold Silk Orb Weaver by Kennedy Holland

    Archaeology and Cultural Research Management
    Botany and Ethnobotany
    Development Studies
    Environmental Chemistry
    Environmental Education
    Environmental Policy
    Environmental Studies
    Natural Resource Management
    Restoration Ecology
    Tropical Ecology

    Costa Rica Independent Study Project Titles

    The success and distribution of the bromeliad Vriesea barii in natural regrowth secondary rainforest, planted hardwood forest and bamboo forest in southwestern Costa Rica

    Water Quality Disparity in Rural Southern Pacific Costa Rica

    Changing Traditions: The Impacts of Commercial Agriculture on Traditional Farming Techniques in Costa Rica

    El valor medicinal del bosque: Una guía para las plantas medicinales and Healing through the Rainforest: A guide to medicinal plants

    Compost Education Project at El Colegio de Platanillo

    Cultural Attitudes and Trends of Sexual Education in Rural Costa Rica

    Mammals at the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology, Baru, Costa Rica

    Traditional and Organic Farms in Costa Rica and What They Have to Share with Each Other

    A Hands On Approach to Rock Art Conservation at the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology

    Healthy Eating in Rural Areas: A Case Study of Platanillo Public School Lunch

    Economic, Social, Political and Environmental Differences Between Large-Scale Convention Agriculture and Subsistence Permaculture in the Southern Portion of Costa Rica

    Behaviors and Attitudes of Waste Disposal in Costa Rica

    Updating and Improving the FCRE Website

    Using Camera Traps to Determine the Differences in Species Richness and Diversity Between a Primary and Secondary Tropical Forest

    The Power of Public Art: A Look Inside the Perceptions of Art in Platanillo

    The Path of the Trash: History, Policies and the Future of Waste Management in Costa Rica

    An Investigation of Health Care in Costa Rica

    Difference in Fruit-feeding Butterfly Species Diversity Based on Ecosystem and Height

    Safe Crossing: Mitigation Techniques for Wildlife along La Costanera

    The Investigation and Colony Construction: Atta cephalotes

    A Difference of Opinion: A Comparison of the National Park Systems in the United States and Costa Rica

    El transporte en El Campo de Costa Rica: Qué Tal?

    Footwear Philosophy: A comparative exploration of the sociocultural theories and biological realities surrounding in-home footwear policy in Curridabat, and Platanillo, Costa Rica


    The Path of Produce: The Socio-Spatial Dynamics of Fresh Food in Costa Rica’s Brunca Region

    What Are We Doing Here? Considering Responsible Study Abroad

    Coenobita Compressus: Foragers in a transition habitat

    A Journey into Meditation

    Flight of the Fincas: Disappearing Food Sovereignty in Rural Costa Rica: A survey of the changes in the sourcing of food for families in Platanillo and Tinamastes

    Environmental Education at Escuela Barú: Creating and Teaching

    “Love People, Cook Them Tasty Food” Las Recetas Populares de Costa Rica

    Medicinal Plant Use In the Local Communities of Platanillo and Tinamaste

    The good ol’ days or the dark ages? Understanding how community members of Platanillo and Tinamastes think about rapid changes in electronic technology

    Evolving Conservation in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone

    The Effect of Captivity on the Behavior of White-Faced Capuchins (Cebus capuchinus)

  • Family Stays

    Costa Rican family stays provide a window into the culture as the families include students in their daily lives and introduce students to relatives from a variety of age groups and backgrounds. Through discussions with the family, students begin to give a human face to important issues and ideas covered in their courses. Often relationships developed with host family members turn into friendships that last long past the end of the program.

    Students will have two family stays. The first will be for one month in San Jose while students study Spanish intensively. Students’ second family stay for the remainder of the semester will be with a rural farming family. Homes are usually small with simple amenities and less chance for privacy.  Students are encouraged to see their host families as co-educators on the program along with staff and faculty and take advantage of the opportunity host families provide to deepen culture and language learning as well as explore important topics and issues covered in the course.