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Published: October 05, 2016

First Semester Starts Abroad for Some Students

Before the group of 19 first-year students even made it to orientation, they were caving, whitewater rafting and studying Costa Rica’s water policy and the health of its water systems.

The two-week Spartans Academy Abroad program gave incoming students the chance to start their academic experience by studying abroad. In partnership with the Monteverde Institute, the students earned eight credit hours in a multidisplinary course that focused on environmental politics, conservation, sustainability and biological diversity.

“We traveled all across Costa Rica and saw a lot. From the beautiful landscapes to the unique biodiversity, the top moment was definitely experiencing new places and different animal life,” said Tim Cucci ’20, of New Lenox, IL. “It was extremely fascinating to look at landscapes and animals in person that I had only ever seen in pictures.”

UT biology professor Mason Meers and government and world affairs professor Kevin Fridy led a combination of lectures, discussions with local groups and observational studies, giving the students real-world experience in the issues surrounding climate change and sustainability.

“I think for Dr. Meers and I, our real hope was that this pre-first year experience would provide a real head start to our students,” Fridy said. “One of the fundamental things all professors want to do at a university is help their students transition from passive receptacles of information into scholars who can contribute to the building of knowledge.”

For Allicyn Cole, a marine science–biology major from Milwaukee, WI, the highlights included seeing all of the wildlife at the national parks they visited, watching Olive Ridley sea turtles surface while on a sustainable fishery tour and spotting a humpback whale while on a boating adventure in the Pacific Ocean.

“This trip impacted me, because it gave me a better understanding of Costa Rican culture, as well as a better understanding of economic and environmental problems outside of the U.S.,” Cole said. “Spartans Academy Abroad impacted my first year at UT by giving me an early start at adjusting to college courses and learning to be more independent.”

One of the unique aspects of this course was the instruction by two professors from two different fields. This not only broadened the perspective of the topics they were studying, but gave them different tools for research. For example, the students were asked to collect data. In Fridy’s social science course, the primary method was a survey that asked Costa Ricans about their experiences with water. For the natural science component, the students took water samples and measured trees.

“Despite these courses being from different branches of the academy, our integrated teaching style taught students that both the surveys and water samples were approaches to turning conceptual variables into operationalized variables to test hypotheses,” said Fridy, who has led UT travel courses to Ghana as well. “I am really proud of how well this little experiment in teaching worked. We really saw lots of light bulbs going off during the two weeks, and I hope that the incoming first-year students will take the lessons learned in Costa Rica into their courses at UT.”

Meers, who has led a UT travel course to Costa Rica multiple times, said the students all rose to the challenge. Not only academically, but he said many experienced personal growth and a widening of their world views.

“If you want to have exceptional outcomes, you have to provide exceptional opportunities,” he said, paraphrasing Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. “Now that they are back at UT, they will likely challenge their professors to provide a more enhanced curriculum.”

Hannah Smith, a marine science–biology major from Saint Peters, MO, said she learned so much in the short time frame, noting one experience in particular. The group took a guided night walk in La Selva Biological Station where they spotted a variety of frogs, toads and insects.

“On every nature walk and tour, I learned about a new plant or animal and how it was unique to Costa Rica's ecosystem,” Smith said. “I learned how they struggle with environmental issues and what the locals are trying to do to improve their situation and educate others about these issues.”

Back on campus, the students are all enrolled in a Pathways to Honors course together so they can continue the conversation.

“The Spartans Academy Abroad has really opened my mind to new experiences and showed me that if I am passionate about something to go out and get involved, even if it is something I never thought I would be able to do,” said Smith. “It also helped my transition into college and showed me that even though being in a new place with new people can be overwhelming to just stick it out because it will get better. Also to enjoy every opportunity and experience I get in life.”

The Spartans Academy Abroad will be offered again in Fall 2017.