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Student Research, Tropical Style!

By Monte Morris

Types of Activity:

  • Hands-on
  • Group/
    cooperative learning
  • Community outreach/
    off-site activity
  • Self-development

Target Audience:

  • Environmental Studies
  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Anthropology
  • Coral reef ecology
  • Rainforest ecology

Question that this activity will help students answer:

How is scientific research conducted?

Background information:

Interested students are given a packet of information about the upcoming trip and the course of studies. Student and parental involvement throughout the year is stressed as well as the financial obligations that the class will entail. Students are required to submit an application for the course, accompanied by two teacher recommendations. Each student's last years' teachers are then asked to fill out a brief checklist of the applicants strengths and weaknesses. They are then submitted to a committee of teachers and administrators for selection, with heavy input from myself if I have had the student in class.

Enrollment is limited to fifteen students. Students are required to maintain a "C" average throughout the year with quarterly and midquarterly grade checks. Any money earned or deposited in the students account is non-refundable, and each parent understands this beforehand (an agreement form is signed). This is essential since many bills are incurred well before the trip. I also found this out the hard way: Since we fundraise most of each students' costs, I had several students drop out mid-year and want to withdraw the funds they had raised. I do not intend for this to be a "job" for students who want to earn the money and then "take a hike!" Thus the parental agreement. Each student is required to earn through group fundraising at least one third of their money for the trip.

A manual (150-300 pages) is designed and printed with scientific, geographical, and cultural information about the country we will visit, as well as student worksheets, labs, and on-site activities. During night classes before the field study, we cover the manual, as well as Peterson's Guide to Coral Reefs, and usually a rainforest book A Belizean Rainforest. A minimum of 24 hours of night class attendance is required. We try to arrange one day to meet with local teachers and students from this country. Each student is required to design, conduct, and submit a paper on a research topic of their choice. They are also required to keep a detailed journal and a species list. Students also must purchase snorkel gear and learn to use it before the field study. Scuba classes are offered as an option.

One semester of elective high school science credit is awarded for each year. Many students have enrolled more than once, and one student has enrolled for five straight years (college credit is also offered)! I have found it is essential to visit the location beforehand to "scout it out" and know what you will be receiving for your money.


A field trip to a tropical location is used to help students examine the process of scientific research.


Each student designs a research project, compiles background material, develops the procedure, and builds, buys, or acquires the necessary equipment. A field study trip to a tropical location allows them to collect their data, while demonstrating that science can be interesting and fun! Conclusions are drawn and the final paper is drafted and submitted several weeks after their return. The main area of concentration is marine ecology, but usually each year an additional research topic is offered depending on the location of the field study. In the past few years student research has been conducted on the reefs of Andros Island, Bahamas (1991), the deserts and marine life at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, Mexico (1992), the reefs and rainforests of Belize (1993), and the reefs, rainforests, and Mayan culture of Honduras (1994).

Parents may not pay the students way; it must be earned through year-long fundraising. This serves to create a strong bond among the students and teaches them responsibility, teamwork, and salesmanship, in addition to the scientific and cultural knowledge gained through the field study. It also allows any student with the desire, the chance to participate regardless of parental economic status. The success of the program is evidenced by the necessity to limit class size due to yearly increases in student enrollment, increasing interest in science as a career choice in college-bound students, an overwhelming outpouring of support from the school and community, and better classroom performance by students-both those currently enrolled in this program and those wishing to enroll in the future.

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