Soltis Center Celebrates 5th Anniversary

Mar 26, 2014

Well-worn foot paths cut through the lush forest, rolling emerald hills lead to jagged mountain peaks and towering waterfalls crash into the rivers below. 

Texas A&M University students are experiencing a level of nature and biodiversity that can’t be found in the Lone Star State, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter, at the Texas A&M Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Isidro de Penas Blancas, Costa Rica. This year the center celebrates the fifth anniversary of providing students with unrivaled experiential learning opportunities.

Located on the Caribbean side of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a protected tropical ecosystem in the Central Highlands Region of Costa Rica, the Soltis Center was established by a 1955 Texas A&M graduate, Charles W. “Bill” Soltis and his wife, Wanda. After traveling to Costa Rica on business 25 years ago, he fell in love with the country and has been an advocate for the preservation of the rainforest. That devotion, combined with love for his alma mater, prompted the couple to purchase rainforest land which they donated to Texas A&M for the establishment of a research and education center.

“The Soltis family is thrilled with the progress at the Soltis Center,” says Kim Soltis Hammer, the couple’s daughter. “My father loves to visit the center and meet the students. We are impressed with the research projects that are being conducted, as well as the outreach that’s going on in the surrounding community. It is apparent that lives are being changed there.”

The center is open to graduate and undergraduate students as a study abroad program and collaborates with a variety of university departments and institutions, along with the local community, to develop education, service and research programs. Students from a variety of academic disciplines – from architecture, engineering and agriculture, to environmental geosciences, geology, education, tropical ecology and biomedical sciences, just to name a few – travel with faculty members to study and conduct research in an area considered to be unparalleled in its biodiversity. Costa Rica is smaller than West Virginia, yet boasts 5 percent of the world’s species.

Eugenio González, the Soltis Center’s director, says since the center’s opening, student participation has risen from 91 in 2009, to 402 in 2013. Faculty attendance has also grown from 16 in 2009, to 166 in 2013.

“For the students and faculty, the center provides a unique study abroad experience with modern facilities where they can learn while enjoying the tropical rainforest and interacting with the local culture,” saysGonzález. “It has opened new educational activities that are not available on the main campus.”

The Soltis Center’s 250 acres, plus adjoining natural reserves, comprise more than 120,000 acres of forest. Pumas and jaguars have been spotted at the center and students have an opportunity to see monkeys, snakes, red-eyed tree frogs and many different species of birds. The center facilities include dormitories, classrooms, laboratories, computer rooms and other amenities.

Chris Houser and Steven Quiring, associate professors in the Department of Geography in the College of Geosciences, brought the first study abroad group to the center during Spring Break 2009 and Houser says the facility has grown substantially since that trip. “In the beginning, everyone assumed it must be a biological field station, but that was very limiting,” notes Houser, the global faculty ambassador, serving as liaison between the center and the rest of the Texas A&M System. “Now we have an enormous diversity of programs.”

Natalie Teale of Fabius, N.Y., is pursuing her master’s degree in geography at Texas A&M and has spent two summers at the Soltis Center investigating how rainwater moves through the forest. Her first trip, during her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University, was due to her involvement with the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) “and greatly influenced my decision to attend graduate school at Texas A&M,” she explains.

Teale says the center’s facilities allow for “state-of-the-art environmental research and the opportunity to conduct analysis in a unique environment. Students feel rejuvenated and refreshed in the living quarters, which are nicer than many hotels. The location is perfect; it’s far enough away from large cities to get the full rainforest experience, while close enough to communities to accommodate any needs.”

Margot Wood of Alamo, Calif.,  is pursuing her Ph.D. in wildlife and fisheries science at Texas A&M and has spent every summer since 2011 at the center. She studies environmental policies and their effects on animal populations. Wood agrees the center’s facilities are ideal for conducting research, but also notes the added cultural benefits for students. “It provides important cultural exchanges for students, many of whom have not been out of the country,” she notes.

Community outreach is another facet of the Soltis Center mission and takes various forms from educating local students to undertaking service projects. “We’ve had mechanical engineering students teaching local high school students about bridge and rocket building,” Houser says. “Our students have built a computer lab for a local school, created new water systems to ensure locals have access to clean water and worked with local farmers to help them improve and sustain agriculture. Another program has students working with Costa Rican health services to investigate and improve how drug and substance abuse is dealt with.”

Houser encourages more Texas A&M students and faculty to utilize the Soltis Center, saying the possibilities for service, research and education are virtually unlimited. For more information, visit the Soltis Center and Study Abroad online.

And leave it to Aggies to bring a little bit of College Station to the jungle − they’ve taught many of the local students how to play dominoes.