STEERing into Central America

Twenty-nine NUS undergraduates gained greater awareness and appreciation for Central America after participating in the first Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) Programme in Costa Rica and Panama from 4 to 22 December. Themed “Understanding Costa Rica and Central America: Its History, Peoples and Cultures, Biodiversity and Conservation, and Business Opportunities”, the eye-opening study trip, facilitated by wildlife biologist Dr Joanna Coleman from NUS Bachelor of Environmental Studies Programme, provided rich exposure to the social, cultural, physical and economic environment of the region.

The visit began in San José, Costa Rica where the group met with Minister of Science, Technology and Telecommunications Dr Marcelo Jenkins and learnt about the rapid development of the telecommunications sector in the country. The students also engaged senior officials from Consejo Nacional de Rectores (CONARE) — a coordinating body for Costa Rica’s state universities — and the Ministry of Environment and Energy, where they were welcomed by Minister of Environment Edgar Gutiérrez. Thoughtful discussions surrounding national challenges, priorities and polices with regard to the country's vast natural resources were held between both parties.

The students then went on an educational tour of the Tapantí National Park, which sits about 1,500m above sea level, and boasts of a rich biodiversity and privileged views of various species of birds, insects and plants. The experience was particularly gratifying for bird enthusiast and Year 4 NUS Science student Movin Nyanasengeran, who had not travelled to the region before. “Typically one requires a lot of focus to spot birds in their natural habitat, but here I could just relax and soak in the beauty of the area while still being able to spot 39 new bird species including the White-bellied mountain gem and the rarer Elegant euphonia. It was the best experience!” he said.

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Stopping for a selfie while hiking through Tapantí National Park

A visit to the University of Costa Rica (UCR) included informative lectures on Latin American studies as well as the business and cultural climate in Central America; a salsa dancing lesson; a peek at the butterfly garden housed within the University's 2-hectare ecological reserve; and a tour of the largest collection of zoological specimens in the country. STEER participants interacted with local undergraduates at the newly established business-focused LEAD University, as well as EARTH University where they also saw student agricultural projects.

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Butterflies at UCR’s 2-hectare ecological reserve on campus

However, for many, the highlight of the programme was a trip to Ostional for the rare opportunity to witness the nesting of an Olive Ridley sea turtle. Millions of turtles hatch along the 7km stretch of beach each year, particularly during the rainy season when mass arribadas (“arrivals” in Spanish), occur regularly.

Armed with filtered flashlights, sleep took a back seat as the group ventured out to the shores in the dead of the night for an experience of a lifetime. “I wasn't prepared for such an awesome time. Seeing the female compact the dirt with her own body in order to bury and protect her eggs made me realise that the turtles are actually very complex and intelligent creatures. It was indeed amazing to observe such a beautiful act of nature up close,” said Year 2 NUS Science student Lee Xin Ying.

During the day, the students helped to unearth more than 1,000 turtle eggs to assist UCR’s efforts in recording and assessing the quality of the nesting, before gingerly returning them. They also met with local community leaders who outlined important conservation efforts of the sea turtles, which are threatened by poaching, marine debris, trafficking and urban development.

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Witnessing the nesting of an Olive Ridley sea turtle

Another major highlight was an overnight stay at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica in Limón, a facility dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, release and research of two- and three-fingered sloths. The students were able to see some of the centre’s furry residents while learning about the solitary tree-dwellers’ sedentary lifestyle. Interesting nuggets of information on sloth behaviour include sloths coming down to the ground only once a week, resulting in up to one kilogram of faeces and two litres of urine deposited each time; and that they sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. Students also experienced the sloth’s habitat first-hand via an exciting canoe ride down a meandering river. The Sanctuary, classified as a research centre in 1997, has received more than 600 orphaned or injured sloths to date, with about 100 being successfully reintroduced into the forests.

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The Panama Canal uses a system of locks with two lanes that operate as water elevators, allowing ships to cross the Continental Divide

In Panama, participants explored landmarks such as the Panama Canal, an artificial 80km waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the Biodiversity Museum with its interactive exhibitions on Panama’s colourful historical developments and rich wildlife. A walking tour allowed them to admire the different architectural styles present in the colonial city area.

The final day was spent at Ciudad del Saber or “City of Knowledge”, a former US military base turned innovative cluster of 195 academic and research institutes, companies and non-governmental organisations. There the students learnt about the economic, social and environmental aspects of Panama, and toured sustainable projects within the City.

For Year 2 NUS Business student Leon Lim, the broad exposure provided by STEER helped him to understand more about various overlapping issues in the region. He offered some advice to future participants, “Don’t be deterred by distance, preconceived notions or your personal fear of the unknown. Be open to new experiences as it’ll often turn out to be quite different from what you expect, in a very good way.”

“I hope students from this programme will go home with a greater appreciation for environmental conservation and diversity of approaches to education, as well as a greater appreciation for one another despite any differences they may have,” added Dr Coleman.

Inaugurated in 2010, the STEER Programme is managed by the NUS International Relations Office and has expanded to include countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.