Sustainable Development Studies

Costa Rica

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Atenas, Costa Rica
Language English instruction with 2-credit Spanish Language & Culture course

Fall 2015: September 7 – December 16

Spring 2016: February 1 – May 11

Fall 2016: August 29 – December 7

Deadline Rolling admissions. Early submissions encouraged for acceptance into program of choice.
Program Cost

Click here for program costs. Program cost includes all tuition, room, board, local travel. Excludes airfare.

Financial Aid Click here for more information about need-based scholarships, loans, and travel grants.
Prerequisites One college-level ecology, biology, or environmental studies/science course; 18 years of age
Credits 18 credits
Studying sustainable development feels a lot more meaningful when you’re interviewing farmers about the impact of tourism on their community than it does when you’re listening to a lecture in a classroom in Massachusetts.        

—Devyn Powell, Tufts University, Fall ‘12



The program examines different development and resource management models that Costa Rica uses to protect the biodiversity of its ecosystems while promoting socioeconomic benefits for its people. Students examine the effects of globalization on development issues such as agriculture, biodiversity protection, economic development, urban sprawl, population growth, waste management, and water quality. Students can see how the SFS Center farm compares with other sustainable farms in the region through an assessment of ecosystem services in the agricultural landscape.

This program focuses on evaluating the actual success of Costa Rica’s world-renowned conservation systems and developing alternative strategies for economic development and biodiversity conservation, such as land-use planning, organic agriculture, and conservation outside of protected areas. Visits to cloud forests, dry forests, volcanoes, lowland rainforests, farms, and plantations offer opportunities to examine management schemes, identify benefits of protected areas, and determine which systems offer the best options for economic development, the maintenance of cultural norms, and the preservation of biodiversity. Understanding the priorities for Costa Rica’s policies, within the context of environmental changes, is crucial as students analyze potential sustainable solutions for Costa Rica and the Central American region.


  • Take an extended field expedition to Nicaragua to compare and contrast development and resource-use issues: hike the volcanoes of Isla Ometepe; explore the rich cultural history of Granada; and study impacts of tourism in the region
  • Visit several national parks to investigate the pressures of ecotourism on small gateway communities and learn about tropical forest ecology
  • Explore Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a protected area rich in biodiversity and cultural significance


  • Learn about bio-indicators of ecosystem health and rainforest ecology
  • Explore Poás Volcano National Park, learning about the geology of Costa Rica and highland ecosystems, management strategies in national parks, and park usage by visitors
  • Develop management policies by continuing long-term bird monitoring programs and analyzing the impact of roads on fauna in protected areas
  • Spend time in the community of El Sur, hiking through primary rainforest and examining sustainable tourism practices
  • Conduct social science research to better understand both residents’ and tourists’ perceptions about the surrounding environment
  • Visit Finca El Toledo, a family-owned and shade-grown organic coffee farm, and learn firsthand about a successful model for integrating conservation and agricultural production in the tropics
  • Explore rare and threatened tropical dry forest ecosystems while camping in the national parks of the Guanacaste Province and studying one of the most successful management models for protected areas in Latin America
  • Develop field research skills including habitat assessment and mapping, species identification, infrastructure assessment in protected areas, GIS or remote sensing, scientific writing and oral presentation, and survey design and interview techniques



  • Investigation of Carara National Park’s management practices in response to increased tourism
  • Evaluation of the socioeconomic benefits of Costa Rica’s national parks for neighboring communities
  • Analysis of impact of road traffic noise on the avifauna of national parks
  • Measurement of ecosystem services, including biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration, in agroforestry systems such as shade-grown coffee farms
  • Evaluation of the impacts of artificial feeders on the ecology of hummingbirds in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
  • Assessment of public perception of the problems and solutions associated with environmental impacts resulting from climate change, urbanization, or management of solid wastes


Conversations and collaborations with local residents, small business owners, and farmers about their perspectives and needs provide the framework for SFS research plans. Our Center is an important stakeholder and partner for local municipalities and ministries, development organizations, and many national parks. The Center has maintained a collaboration agreement with the National System of Conservation Areas for the last 15 years, and more recently has established relationships with local NGOs and universities.

A cornerstone of the program is the opportunity for student engagement in Atenas and surrounding areas. The Center collaborates with local organizations on projects such as:

  • Engaging in long-term community projects: U.S. culture and English taught in the elementary schools; environmental education at the Municipal Forest; and recycling projects
  • Establishing nurseries of native tree species, and reforestation and watershed conservation projects with local organizations
  • Participating in soccer games, community festivals, and short homestay visits



The SFS Center for Sustainable Developmen Studies, located an hour from the capital city of San José, comprises a campus facility integrated with a small Rainforest Alliance Certified™ mango and orange farm overlooking the fertile Central Valley. Practicing sustainability is part of the student learning and living experience. The Center’s facilities include a dormitory and cafeteria, indoor and outdoor classrooms, an organic garden and greenhouse, a soccer field, a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a forested area with trails. The campus is part of the small neighborhood of La Presa/Los Angeles, and the friendly town of Atenas is only three miles from campus. Costa Rica’s tropical forests, beaches, mountains, and volcanoes are within a day’s travel.