State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Reflections on an Ecological Study Abroad Experience

“Everything is so alive in the forest. After a nice summer rain it teems with insects, birds and the famous coquis, Puerto Rico’s native frogs. The song of the coquis take a little getting used to, but they soon lull you to sleep in the humid nights,” says Jennifer Mendez, a student in the first class of the Summer Ecosystem Experience for Undergraduates in Puerto Rico.

Prospective students to the SEE-U Puerto Rico program can look forward to being immersed in the vast El Yunque rainforest, the only one of its kind within the United States Forest System. Housed in the apartments of El Verde – the research field station for the Puerto Rico program – students are surrounded by diverse plants, fungi, and fauna, making for interesting experiences everyday. Sometimes, though, things can even get a little unpredictable.

Coquis By Javyer

“We were learning about biodiversity in class, so after a short lecture we walked into the forest and collected soil samples to compare insect diversity, “ recalls Jennfer. “To do this we had to aspirate the insects into a jar – except one of the students set up his apparatus backward and instead of sucking the insects into the jar, sucked it right into his mouth! It was so gross, but so funny.”

Of course, not everything about the program is unpredictable. Students get up in the morning, have breakfast, and head over to class in the field station’s research building. Some days involve lots of lecture time, but most days students head to the field for hands-on learning.

“I call it a sort of blitz style to learning,” explains Jennifer. “We get the theory behind the topic through readings – assigned the night before – and through lecture and discussion that morning, then we go into the field to collect data and observations, and end the day with summary presentations of our work. It’s quick and dirty, yet thorough. Oh, and really, really fun.”

Topics covered in the Puerto Rico course include global biomes, Puerto Rico’s ecosystems (the island is a biodiversity hotspot), and environmental conflict resolution. The course also takes students off the field station to study the ecosystems of the island: to El Portal, the tourist center for El Yunque Rainforest, on a snorkeling trip to Magueyes, to a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo and to the desert forest of Guanica.

But after a day of hard work, what do students do in their free time?

At the field station, students often share dinner with the Puerto Rican researchers and play board games in the evening, or head down to the local river for a refreshing dip on the weekends. Students also organize trips to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, for kite flying, museum visits and nightlife, as well as trips to nearby Luquillo Beach.

Want more information about the SEE-U program and all the field site options? Visit the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation’s website to learn more about SEE-U credit options, topics covered, funding, and much more. Feel free to contact program coordinator Desmond Beirne at 212-854-0350 or

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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