AP biology students heading for Costa Rica to study sea turtles, volcanoes
Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor

10 Sulphur Springs High School students leave for an adventurous trip to Costa Rica this summer. Pictured left to right are: (front) Kendall Smith, Melissa Hayes, sponsor Chrystal Reneau, Katie Hettich and Kayla Morgan; (back) Levi Moore, Melissa Cutrell, Landon McCaig, Zach Lewis, K. C. Smith and Charlie Ginn.

Feb. 12, 2006 -- Ten current and former members of Sulphur Springs High School instructor Chrystal Reneau's advanced placement biology class will get an opportunity this summer to travel to a tropical land full of new adventures and two weeks of fun. 

In addition to white water rafting, soaking up the culture and zip-lining through the rain forest, the "outstanding students" will also help with sea turtle conservation efforts, hands-on conservation work through reforestation of the rain forest, as well as get to see an active volcano while in Costa Rico, headquarters of the Earth Council since 1992 due to its natural resource and conservation activities.

Because the EcoTeach Expedition trip to Costa Rica is not sponsored by the school district, the students will also, at their request, participate in some mission work. They are hoping to work in some homes, helping with repairs, or possibly working with children at an orphanage.

Reneau and parents Hank and Karey Hayes will depart the United States for Costa Rica June 22, with high school juniors and seniors Melissa Hayes, K.C. Smith, Kayla Morgan, Katie Hettich, Melissa Cutrell, Landon McCaig, Levi Moore, Charlie Ginn, Zach Lewis and Kendall Smith. The Hayes' younger daughter, seventh grader Leah, will also accompany the group.

Of the biology students, only Melissa Hayes and Kendall Smith have traveled further abroad than the United States and Mexico. The pair joined a group led by SSHS English teacher Evelyn Kattes last year in a tour of Europe. Most of the students, however, have also participated in previous mission trips, including work in Mexico.

Kayla Morgan was excited at the idea of being able to travel outside of the U.S. and Mexico for the first time, to try her hand at "jungle canopy ziplines and river rafting," as well as the prospect of helping preserve endangered sea turtles by helping transplant eggs to hatchery areas safe from poachers who would kill the endangered leatherbacks.

"I want to go into marine biology," K.C. Smith said. "I'm going [to Costa Rica] to see if I like the conservation side of it."

K.C. Smith is the proclaimed "animal guru" of the group. He has an insatiable curiosity about and knowledge of the animal kingdom, and admits that shows featuring sea turtles, particularly "Kratts' Creatures" on KERA, are particularly captivating for him. One especially memorable  episode was "Kratts' Creatures #126 — Arribada 1: The Sea Turtle Invasion," in which the sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach, an event the Sulphur Springs group hopes to help take part in.

The group will spend at least two nights of their trip in hotels, "in a comfortable country setting" in the Atenas and the Central Valley, but will be at the mercy of local tour guides' planning and area accommodations the remainder of the trip, Reneau said of the listed turtle research itinerary.

Students such as Morgan showed particular enthusiasm for the days when they will stay with families in Costa Rica, learning about the culture and life in the tropical climate. 

"It's going to be really cool," Smith said in describing the summer venture, which they consider a fun, educational vacation.

"Accommodations at the turtle projects are very simple — there may not be electricity, and while there is running water, hot water is not likely to be available," EchoTeach's web site notes in the itinerary for turtle research groups’ three nights on the Caribbean coast doing turtle work.

They will also stop in a cloud forest, eat a typical Costa Rican farm meal, and visit a butterfly garden.

During the three nights of the turtle project, they will patrol the beach in search of nesting sea turtles and hatchlings, conducting population studies, tagging turtles, transplanting eggs to a protected area and releasing hatchlings into the ocean, provided the turtles choose those three nights for nesting.

During the three days, they will explore canals for wildlife, hike in the forest, and play soccer or volleyball. They may also have opportunities to volunteer to build a hatchery or clean the beach of debris to make it safe for the turtles.

They will also plant trees in the rain forest to help reestablish the natural habitat of the endangered great green macaw, and see an active volcano.

On the way to the Arenal volcano project, a two-day endeavor, they will have the opportunity to go white water rafting in Class II and III rapids on the Sarapiqui River.

During the two-night Arenal volcano project, they will stay at a lodge at the base of the volcano, where they can hike to a waterfall, swim in its pools, visit an organic farm, and could see some of the "red-hot lava" which runs down the sides of the volcano that erupts several times a day.

They will stay on a farm, where they will be paired with a Costa Rican family in Pital for the night to learn about the campesino lifestyle firsthand, while helping improve the environment through reforestation and education.

After that, the students will spend two days on the Pacific Coast beaches, where they will have opportunities to swim, snorkel, boogie board and visit the macaw project, where efforts are being made to increase the population of scarlet macaws, whose numbers are threatened by poaching. They may even have an opportunity to see some large crocodiles — from a distance.

By the end of May, all the students will have completed the AP Biology class, which helps prepare them by covering all aspects of biology from ecology to microbiology. They also will have several courses of Spanish under their belts, are all upper classmen and outstanding students. After taking the state end-of-course AP Biology exam, they will spend the last two weeks of the year doing more in-depth research on Costa Rica, sea turtles and the environment and culture they will be visiting.

Reneau suggested the trip after learning about the study expedition in January 2005 when she attended a session offered by the tour group during the National Science Teachers Association Conference in Dallas. Attracted to the rain forest decor on the booth, Reneau sat in on the session. Intrigued by the opportunity she further researched the idea and presented the idea.

Students have been working to raise the required funds to pay for the June 22-July 2 Costa Rica trip. Each person going will need about $2,000, which covers all expenses from airfare to lodging and food, except extras such as personal souvenirs. So far, they have earned about $800 each through the sale of baked goods made by students and their families each Friday. They also were able to use a smoothie machine, loaned by former Higher Grounds coffee stand operators, to set up in front of the school near the student parking lot entrance to generate some funds.

This semester, students are seeking sponsors to help generate funds to supplement the bake sales and previous fund raisers.

"We're hoping businesses and people will be willing to invest 'stock' in the students by spending $100  to invest in the kids' education through the trip," Reneau said. 

The students plan to take plenty of pictures, which they can show off during a special "stockholders' dinner" they hope to be able to host for those donors investing in the trip.

Donations can be made by contacting Reneau at 903-438-1462.

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