Conservation and Leadership class pushes students boundaries



At the Caye Caulker Marine Preserve, just a few miles west of the Belize Barrier Reef, eight Marietta College students snorkeled in the clear aqua water, stingrays and nurse sharks floating inches beneath them.


Moments later, their snorkeling guide speared a lionfish, holding the spiny and venomous marine creature above water, telling the students about this invasive predator and its negative impact on the reef’s ecology.


This was only one of innumerable learning opportunities during a three-week course in Costa Rica and Belize for the students, who were accompanied by Drs. Rob McManus, David Brown and Dave McShaffrey.


The class, Leadership 350 - Conservation and Leadership Service Project, was a collaboration of the Leadership and Biology departments that aimed to introduce students to “ecologically sensitive areas” in Costa Rica and Belize. This included meeting local leaders to learn about conservation initiatives and struggles, as well as studying the indigenous fauna and flora, or wildlife.


Mary Roberts ’14 (Circleville, Ohio) counts this experience as one of the best in her collegiate career.


“This trip pushed my boundaries in many ways,” Roberts says. “We explored ancient Mayan ruins and snorkeled with stingrays, sharks, and manatees — among many other exciting adventures. I was able to be immersed into a new culture and learn more about the people of Latin America as we collected surveys on the Latin American perspective on the environment and conservation.”


In addition to the required reading that was paired with the course, the students also had to develop and execute a survey to the local people addressing their opinions on conservation and sustainability issues. These surveys were often completed in Spanish. The students then analyzed their results in individual research projects to complete the course.


The Biology department’s fifth trip to Costa Rica also offered a unique service component that transformed the course’s focus on ecology and conversation into a tangible experience. At the El Zota field station in Costa Rica, a former lumberyard and site of deforestation, the students planted more than 250 seedlings of six different specifics of trees in a two-day span.  


“It is one thing to talk about reforestation efforts and another to actually help to plant a couple acres of trees. This will not be a one time learning experience either,” Brown says. “We are planning to follow how these trees grow on future trips to Costa Rica. In those future trips the students will make measurements and track the success of the trees that were planted by the LEAD 350 students.”


If only one of these trees grows to full size, it will absorb all of the carbon generated by planes, cars and boats used on the trip.


“I don't think any of us were truly prepared to plant trees in the middle of the rainforest,” says Alyssa McGrath ’13 (Chillicothe, Ohio). “In the end, though, the heat and the scary wildlife that we encountered were no match for our passion and our drive to make a difference in the environment and in our world. We successfully planted hundreds of trees that will help to reduce carbon emissions in our atmosphere.”


Outside of the academics and service, the students and faculty also experienced authentic local thrills, from zip lining through the forests of Monteverde to swimming beneath the waterfall at Rincon de la Vieja to canoeing through limestone caves in San Ignacio.


McGrath offers one last reflection on her experiences with her classmates in Costa Rica and Belize:


“I was caught off guard by the amount of bug spray, endurance, and tolerance for humidity I would need on the trip, but I was certainly not disappointed by the trip itself,” she says. “There’s no way to be disappointed when you are standing on top of Mayan ruins that are almost 1,000 years old or when you are snorkeling in a coral reef and swimming with sea turtles. I’d say the trip definitely exceeded my expectations.”


To learn more about the trip to Costa Rica and Belize and see hundreds of photos from their three-week adventure, visit