Seen here are SCH Academy Upper School students during the eSCHift trip to the United Arab Emirates last fall. During their travel, SCH Academy students participated in leadership workshops, discussions with local entrepreneurs and social innovation projects with students from NYU Abu Dhabi and the Wellington International School. Standing in front of the Burj Al Arab (sailboat building) are (from left) Alexis Berry, Ayan Aidid, Anna Freed, Matthew Trejo, Dylan Brush, Kaleigh Apostolico and Sanna Johnson. (Photo by Saburah Posner)

by Lou Mancinelli

Imagine learning among banana plantations, parakeets in the rainforest, monkeys in the jungle, volcanoes, rapids and waterfalls. That is what 21 seventh and eighth graders from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) will experience when they travel to Costa Rica next week for nine days (March 20-29).

This is not the first co-ed trip at SCH Academy, but it is the first middle school trip abroad and the first co-ed middle school trip. (SCH middle schools are still single gender, with a middle school for girls and a middle school for boys.)

This trip is an eco-immersion educational opportunity designed to bring the pages of students’ textbooks to life. Students will participate in research projects at biological reserves, live in homes with local families, engage in community building projects and experience sustainability firsthand.

“No one is educated in this day and age unless they have an appreciation of the way different people live,” said Marilyn Tinari, head of Middle School for Girls at SCH. Tinari, 60, a Mount Saint Joseph and Chestnut Hill College graduate, is one of three faculty members attending the trip organized by SCH faculty and the owners of Chill Expeditions.

The itinerary reads like an adventure plan for scientists: after breakfast they drive to the base of Arenal, one of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes. Upon arrival they have a chance to compare different strategies for sustainable and organic agriculture with a visit to Don Juan’s Farm … they investigate organic farming, sustainable agriculture, bio-digesters, raising tilapia, milking cows and even squeezing sugarcane juice.

“We try to create what we call intellectual adventure,” said Crawford Hill, owner of Chill Expeditions, which organized the trip.

Raised in West Mt. Airy, Hill, 60, attended Episcopal Academy before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974. He taught biology at Episcopal for 35 years and also coached wrestling.

In 1999 Hill collaborated with Costa Rican Adventures (CRA) to bring students to Costa Rica. He had met the owners a year earlier at a biology convention. Since then he has traveled with 35 groups to the island and led more than 800 students. “It brings history to life,” he said.

In 2010, when the opportunity to purchase the company developed, Hill moved on the chance. The past two years he and a partner have worked to expand the company.

A tiny village in Spain where he vacationed with his family for 25 years seemed like a good place to start. He changed CRA’s name to Chill Expeditions (his friends call him “Chill”) and realized that he had to provide an educational opportunity beyond mere eco-tourism. Instead, students immerse themselves in local communities and work alongside the people who live there.

The company now works with over 800 groups and schools across the nation that have traveled with Chill Expeditions or are interested in doing so. The company offers trips to Ecuador, Belize, Spain and the Galapagos Islands.

“Raising money with bake sales and all is really fun, but you don’t really get to meet the people,” said Mei Rose Connor, 13, a seventh grader who will attend the trip this March. “You get to talk to them and see if what you’re doing is working. It’s like a two-way thing.”

Connor, an Ambler resident, is most excited for the visit to Frog Heaven, a family’s frog conservation project visited by biologists around the world.

“What we liked was the whole story approach,” said Tinari about working with Chill Expeditions.

This story approach connects lessons with themes. Students will study connections with nature by white-water rafting through a scenic river that slices through primary rainforest and plunges through mountain gorges in the Puerto Viejo area. Afterwards, students will spend the night in a small village.

Another day students will zip-line hundreds of feet up in the air across the rainforest to get a monkey’s eye view of the canopy and flora below. Afterwards, students will study at the San Gerardo Biological Research Station, part of the 54,000-acre protected Children’s Eternal Rainforest.

It’s this kind of experience that helps students think about questions like: how do interactions with and conceptions of nature shape economic, social, and conservation issues? Or how might damming the river affect those interactions? And what’s it like to live in rural Costa Rica?

The program fits into a number of SCH efforts to get their kids outside the classroom and into the world. Last year it launched its Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) through which it sent a number of students to the United Arab Emirates.

“Hopefully they’ll bring back an excitement for seeing the world with new eyes and other ways,” said Tinari. “The idea is that they’ll see what another people’s lives are like.”

For more information about Chill Expeditions, visit www.chillexpeditions.com.