“You’re walking along a dark sand beach at midnight. With a sky full of stars, all is silent as you look towards the rolling ocean. You’re in search of the elusive, gigantic leatherback sea turtle and its hatchlings- and when you spot them, you’ll help increase our understanding of and our ability to conserve this keystone species.”
~Ecology Project International

In March, seven students from Union High School will take their study of science to a whole new level when they travel to Costa Rica for an immersive scientific and ecological experience learning about leatherback sea turtles. The students will be accompanied by high school science instructor Craig Hemsath, who completed a similar experience with Ecocogy Project International (EPI) in April.
Upon arrival in Costa Rica, the Union group will join another small group of students from northern Wisconsin and spend the next seven days actively engaged in a variety of scientific endeavors.
“We stay at a private research station on the beach. It’s the most important nesting beach in the Caribbean. Every night we patrol four or five miles on the beach in complete darkness. We’re looking for leatherback turtles as they come ashore to lay eggs,” Hemsath explained.
Students will work in four hour shifts, beginning at 8 PM, working throughout the night until 4 AM. Each turtle they find will be measured and tagged. Students will also count the number of eggs the turtle lays, relocating them if they are too close to the water and in danger of washing away. Much of the data they collect will be in support of the ongoing research and study of leatherback turtles, an endangered species.
For Hemsath, the field work will be an excellent opportunity for students to “do” science, to learn the importance of collecting and analyzing data, and to better understand the impact the United States has on other parts of the world.
Not only will the students be challenged by the work, they will also be challenged by the living conditions, as the Sea Turtle Ecology Program is very much an unplugged experience. While the use of cameras will be allowed in Costa Rica, students will not have access to their cell phones, computers, Ipods and other electronic devices. EPI’s strict unplugged policy is designed to maximize students’ time away from home and minimize the potential loss or damage of those devices.
“It is an unplugged, remote experience. I think that will be the biggest shock. We’re going to go a week without electricity, without hot water and no communication,” Hemsath said.
Because safety is the number one concern for EPI, a company with an excellent track record of hosting student groups over the past 15 years, there will be at least four adults with the students from Iowa and Wisconsin at all times. There are also provisions made for communicating with the group in the event of an emergency.
Along with their work on the beach, students will have some instructional time during the day, which will include the opportunity to learn about ecology and the tropics as they hike through the jungle. The group will also interact with local students when they visit a high school, a facility that promises to be much different than the one they enjoy in La Porte City.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for students preparing to travel more than 3,000 miles out of the country is raising the money to pay for the trip. The cost for their journey is $3,300 per person, which includes airfare. As a fundraiser, the students are currently selling four different blends of coffee from a company that specializes in sustainably sourced, organic coffee. Orders may be placed by contacting Craig Hemsath by phone (342-2697) or e-mail (c_hemsath@union.k12.ia.us) before December 22nd. Each bag costs $13.
Hemsath noted the journey to Costa Rica promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime educational and cultural experience for students who call eastern Iowa home.
“They will be busy doing actual conservation research. Yes, they’ll see some cool stuff. But they’re going to be a part of something that is bigger than just seeing the sights.”