While most students were sitting in classrooms counting down the last days of the school year, a group of teens from Trinity High School and Mercy Academy were sitting on the floor of a Costa Rican rainforest counting leaf-cutter ants — a particularly destructive type of ant.
The students traveled to the Central American nation May 26 to June 5 to study the ants, butterflies, toads, frogs and lizards.
Patrick Heintz, a science teacher from Trinity High School, led the group of 33 students — including a dozen from Lexington Catholic High School in the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. They stayed at Finca La Anita, an organic farm that produces chocolate, in the small town of Colonia Libertad, said Heintz. They conducted their research in the rainforest and at a butterfly garden located in the town.
While in Costa Rica — a country known for its beaches and diversity of plant and wildlife — students had the opportunity to do college and graduate-level work, said Heintz.
“They designed their own experiments, conducted research and statistically analyzed data,” said Heintz. “Whether they were on the rainforest floor counting ants or digging up colonies, it’s college-level work. It’s something they don’t usually get to do in high school.”
Ryan Groza, a freshman at Trinity, said his research consisted of studying Blue Morpho butterflies to determine how bacteria differ from one stage of metamorphosis to the next.
“I learned to sterilize equipment, dissect butterflies and compare bacteria,” said Gorza. “There are many bacteria found in each stage and they are what make each organism unique.”
Much of the research the students conducted, however, involved the resilient leaf-cutter ants — capable of destroying entire crops, the students explained during an interview at Trinity June 7.
Ella Teeley and Chloe Newton, freshmen at Mercy, and Cole Nichols, a junior at Trinity, conducted experiments to find natural ant pesticides, they said. Teeley discovered that eucalyptus oil repelled the ants, she said.
The students woke early in the mornings and worked late into the nights, often using flashlights in the forest when they ran out of daylight said Teeley.
They took their research seriously, they said, because it has serious consequences.
Research on leaf-cutter ants is important “especially in that region,” said Nichols, a student from Trinity. “Exports to other countries and even the economy would be disrupted” if farmers don’t find ways to control the ants.
The students knew how important their work was, said Marilyn Bowman, a science teacher from Mercy Academy who accompanied the group.
She said the students quickly became fond of the owners of Finca la Anita and were motivated to help find ways to protect the owners’ cacao crop from ants.
Bowman said the program is “tremendous” in what it accomplishes for the high school students. “It helps them to think like scientists and engineers and that will open doors for their future, she said.
The trip was made possible through Seeds of Change, Inc., a Minnesota-based non-profit organization. Its mission is to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for high school students through tropical field research, according to the group’s website.
The students said this eight-day trip will have an impact on their lives.
“Everything I learned will give me a headstart,” said Newton, a student from Mercy. “Most (high school students) don’t get this experience.”
The education he received in Costa Rica “sets the bar pretty high,” said Groza. “It was very hands-on and immersive. It’s an experience you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
Teeley, a student from Mercy, said “working efficiently with people you just met,” is a challenge she believes will be helpful later in life.
While in Costa Rica the students also did service work. Their last two days were spent planting trees in the Horizontes forest and they spent a night on the beach helping researchers find nesting sea turtles.
The students presented their findings to professors from the University of Costa Rica before heading home and offered a similar presentation on June 7 at Trinity.