The University Record, October 16, 2000

Illustration class finds Costa Rica exciting, tiring, beautiful

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Leafcutter ants in the rainforest provided a day’s lesson. Students in Costa Rica and Michigan observed ant habits and food preferences.
It took two of them nearly an hour to drive the truck five miles through the brush and mud. They forded a meandering river four times to reach the general store that was sometimes open and sometimes not.

They did it every morning for a week to reach the closest telephone to their camp so that they could connect to the Internet and upload text and images to communicate with nearly 1,000 third-grade students in Pinckney and Lakeland schools.

The 16 students in Joseph Trumpey’s scientific illustration class and four elementary school teachers spent 16 days in Costa Rica, one of the field trips designed by Trumpey to allow students the experience of in-the-field illustration and observation.

Students at all levels fulfilled drawing assignments. Above, a third-grade student in Pinckney Community Schools tries her hand at some nature illustration.
Last winter term, the class expanded to include local school districts on a virtual tour of the rainforest and cloud forest regions in Costa Rica. The illustration students kept daily journals of what they observed and did, used a digital camera to record some of the plants and animals in the area, then duplicated experiments conducted in the classrooms back in the United States. They measured rainfall, kept track of daily temperature ranges and dug through layers of soil to determine what plant material and animal life were present at specific levels.

Barb Nelson, a third-grade teacher at Lakeland Elementary School, says it was the “trip of a lifetime” for her.

“It was everything you can imagine. It was beautiful, scary, exciting—and tiring,” she says. Nelson, who was the oldest member of the group, said the trip was exhausting and that she felt totally out of her element sometimes—especially at night when she slept little for fear that snakes or wild animals might fall on her during the night.

Steve Moss draws in the cloud forest.
The class divided into small groups for many of the tasks that needed to be taken care of in camp. Nelson’s job was to conduct the same experiments that were being done in Michigan. One of the most interesting, she says, was the observation of leafcutter ants in Costa Rica and ant colonies in Michigan.

“We found that leafcutter ants go out to three different trees at one time and bring back leaves to the nest. They don’t want to infect the whole nest if the leaves are bad or diseased, so they take different kinds of leaves to different parts of the nest,” she noted.

At the same time, school children at Lakeland were placing lettuce, sweet foods and other delicacies out for their own ant colony and observing its behavior. Did they prefer sweets to vegetables? Would they rather eat bread than peanut butter? How much would they carry back to their nest, and how far did they go?

Those questions and others were answered as they recorded data in their classrooms, much as the students in Costa Rica did.

“The kids loved it,” Nelson says. “They had one of their own teachers in the rainforest, and that added to the excitement of the trip.”

Daily hikes in the rainforest were a matter of course, but because the forest is so dense and has so few trails, students walked through rivers and streams.
Amanda Humphrey, a fifth-year student in illustration, was one of the U-M students in the class. She visited classrooms and met the third graders before the trip, then corresponded over the Internet and answered some of the questions they raised.

“They would ask things like ‘What was the largest animal you saw?’” she says. “The kids seemed really interested. We met with them three times before we left and they felt pretty comfortable asking us questions.”

Above is the 'general store' where the 'Eco Explorers' in Joe Trumpey's scientific illustration class made daily reports on what they learned in the rainforest. Trumpey and the U-M students reported results of experiments, answered questions from students in the Pinckney Community Schools and uploaded digital photographs they had taken. To see photos and lessons visit the Web at Photos courtesy Joe Trumpey

Humphrey plans a career in illustration, probably as a freelancer.

Trumpey’s class accommodates age levels from freshman to advanced graduate student and is limited in number. Field illustration and the opportunity to see a different environment is a big draw for students, but this is the first time he has ever included elementary students in the virtual expedition. This winter he plans to do it again, with a trip to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

Trumpey’s expedition to Costa Rica was supported by the School of Art and Design, Pinckney Community Schools, the School of Art and Design and Instructional Technology Division Partnership grant, the Livingston and Washtenaw Mathematics and Science Center of the Michigan State Board of Education grant for “Comparing the Ecosystems of Michigan’s Temperate Forests to the Rainforests of Costa Rica,” the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, and the Media Union.