Tropical Forest Ecology and Development

Program Dates: May 28, 2023 - June 30, 2023

Tropical forests are the home to incredible biodiversity and their protection and restoration is essential to address the climate crisis. Researchers estimate that over 30 million acres of tropical forest were lost in 2020 and that rate is increasing. Reversing forest loss and its effects on biodiversity and climate change requires an understanding of the dynamic interplay between social and ecological processes. This is an interdisciplinary program that examines the social and ecological aspects of forest dynamics, protection, and restoration in the context of four different tropical forest biomes in Costa Rica - lowland rainforests, cloud forests, dry forests, and mangrove / wetland complexes.  

The program is developed around two complementary 3-credit courses that explore social and ecological interactions in these four forest regions. The first course, Tropical Forest Ecology in the Anthropocene, introduces students to key ecosystem and community ecology processes in the context of these four biomes. It will also examine the effects of global change processes on forest dynamics.  

The second course, Forests and Development in the Tropics, focuses more on the social and economic processes that create threats to tropical forests and how these processes can positively or negatively impact efforts to restore and protect forests. The courses address land use history and the emergence of fragmented and threatened landscapes in these different environments. Students will develop an understanding of how different restoration and protection strategies affect the joint production of and tradeoffs between ecological  services and economic benefits.  

The program starts in the cloud forests of Monteverde, moves down through the Bluebell Bird Corridor to the  Pacific mangroves, then north to the dry forest of Palo Verde, and finally to the lowland rainforest of Sarapiqui in the Atlantic lowlands. In addition to the two classes, students will actively engage community members,  environment and development organizations, and Costa Rican researchers. Students will also participate in home stays and language classes as part of the program.  



The total program will be almost 5 weeks running from May 28 to June 30 during the Summer I session. During that time we will visit three main regions with distinct forest and social dynamics. The program starts and ends with a night in the capital San Jose to facilitate arrivals and departures.

Monteverde (May 29 - June 8). Our first stop will be Monteverde and the cloud forests of Costa Rica’s central mountain chain. Tropical cloud forests are one of the most biologically diverse biomes on earth with endemic species composition and unique forest dynamics. They are also highly susceptible to land use change and climate change. In Monteverde, students will participate in a home stay and take language classes. Students will also explore efforts to protect the region's Bellbird Biological Corridor which runs from the cloud forest down to the mangrove forests on the Pacific coast. This includes a set of community and environmental activities going from the mountains down to the mangroves. Students will participate in hands-on forest monitoring and meeting with community organizations focused on reforestation and community development.

Palo Verde (June 8 - June 12). From the mangrove forests of the Bellbird Biological Corridor we will move north to Palo Verde National Park, home to one of the largest remaining dry forests in Central America and the region’s largest wetland. We will stay at the Palo Verde Research Station inside the National Park. We will focus on threats to the forest and wetlands from invasive species, cattle ranching, and commodity agriculture. 

Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui (June 12 - 29). This is the rainforest of the Atlantic lowlands and home to La Selva Biological Station. Students will explore the dynamics of mature and secondary forests through close readings of the scientific literature from La Selva and first hand investigations. Students will also meet with farmers and organizations working to develop more sustainable forest-based land use strategies. They will also investigate the effects of ongoing timber extraction, cattle grazing, and commodity agriculture (e.g. bananas and pineapple). Students will carry out collaborative research projects that include ecological skills such as vegetation surveys, herbarium sample preparation, and tree measurements, as well as social investigations of forest threats and protection.


In-Country Partners

This program is being developed in collaboration with three partner organizations with experience in tropical ecology and conservation, community engagement, and supporting international education programs. These are long-term partnerships that we hope to enhance through the program as we identify shared goals and collaborative projects.

Monteverde Institute (MVI). MVI has been actively engaged in environmental education, community development, and forest protection since its founding in the 1970s. The current Executive Director of MVI is Fern Perkins, an Appalachian alum with a BS and MS in Biology. MVI is actively involved in trying to engage landowners along the Bellbird Biological Corridor in forest protection and reforestation activities, in order to enhance forest integrity. MVI works closely with community organizations in Monteverde and throughout the corridor.

Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). OTS is an international university consortium with partner universities in Latin America, the US, and Africa. It has a leader in tropical ecology research and protection through its set of research stations in Costa Rica. Palo Verde Research Station in the dry forest and La Selva Biological Research Station in the rain forest are run by OTS. A disproportionate amount of our current scientific knowledge about neotropical forest ecology comes from research at La Selva. We are currently developing a research partnership with OTS and La Selva scientists on the long-term effects of reforestation on biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and forest complexity. 

FUNDECOR. For 30 years FUNDECOR has focused on balancing forest protection and community livelihoods in the areas around the Braulio Carrillo National Park and BIological Corridor which runs from the mountains of the cordillera central to the lowland rainforest at La Selva. While this is one of the country’s earliest and largest parks, it is surrounded by direct threats from timber extraction, cattle production, and commodity agriculture. It is also threatened by climate change and the loss of connectivity. FUNDECOR works with affiliated farmers and landowners to develop forest management and reforestation activities that protect forest integrity but also provide local communities with viable livelihood strategies. We are currently partnering with FUNDECOR in the development of research to assess the joint production of ecological services and community livelihoods in the region.


All program participants will be enrolled in two classes. Participants can decide if they want Tropical Forest Ecology in a Changing World to count as a BIO or SD course.

Course Prefix

Course Name




Tropical Forest Ecology in the Tropics


Richard Rheingans

BIO 35XX / SD 35XX 

Tropical Forest Ecology in a Changing World


Julia Showalter


Faculty Leaders

Richard Rheingans
Department of Sustainable Development


Prior to joining Appalachian State in 2016, Dr. Rheingans was a faculty member in the Department of Environmental and Global Health and the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida. He has also held teaching and research positions the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Emory University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He completed his PhD at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, working on agroforestry and forest restoration in Costa Rica. His current research interest focus is on the social and ecological dynamics of forest restoration in Appalachia and Costa Rica.


Julia Showalter
Department of Biology

Julia is a lecturer in the Biology Department and currently teaches Dendrology, Environmental Studies, and Ecology and Botany Labs.  Her interests center around forest ecology, reforestation, agroforestry, and regenerative agriculture. Prior to coming to Boone in 2016, she studied carbon sequestration in agroforestry systems in India at University of Florida.  Prior to this, she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and worked with tree nurseries, and wildlife clubs.  She has also worked for the Forest Service in the Monongahela National Forest.  She received an M.S. in Forestry from Virginia Tech, looking at regeneration of native tree species on devastated mine lands.


Program Cost: $7,555

Program cost includes meals, lodging, in-country transportation. 

Estimated Additional Expenses


Tuition - Resident

$152.54 / credit hour

Tuition - Non-Resident

$172.54 / credit hour

Personal Expenses




Meals (not included in fee)


Please note that non-billable costs are estimates only and will be affected by personal spending habits, currency fluctuations, etc. Prices listed in USD unless otherwise noted. Students are encouraged to start planning for their study abroad program costs well in advance. 

Payment Schedule





 Upon receipt of application

Payment 1



Payment 2 



Payment 3



Appalachian reserves the right to cancel or alter the program format or to change costs in case of conditions beyond the university's control.  Further details about Appalachian's withdrawal/cancellation policy can be found at this link.


Application Process

  1. In order to apply for this program, you will need to contact one of the program leaders and provide your Banner ID and email address. Program leaders may request additional information or a meeting to discuss the details of the program and your interest.
  2. When permission to apply for the program is granted, you will receive an email from the Office of International Education and Development with a link to the application and further instructions.
  3. Your application will be considered complete when you have submitted it and paid the $300 deposit fee. The fee cannot be paid until it appears on your student account. Please note that it may take 2–3 business days for it to post to your account. You will receive an email with Instructions for paying the deposit fee. Instructions can also be found in the application.