Costa Rica Digital Exploration

Connie Magnuson

Why Digital Stories?
Hands-on or experiential learning is an approach that has been shown to be very effective, and students seem to really like it. Their work shows that they really understand and embrace it and that is what is most important.

Study abroad courses can be viewed as the ultimate in experiential learning.  These travel experiences provide tremendous opportunities for exploration, discovery, challenge and personal growth unlike anything that can happen in a traditional classroom.

When determining the academic assignment for the Explore Costa Rica course, it was important to find a way for students to become fully engaged with the travel experience, to connect with the country being visited, to become more immersed in the topic they were researching, to have discussions with locals in the communities and to be able to reflect on their experiences in a meaningful way.  

As a photographer, one can experience firsthand the power and insight that comes from being behind the lens. Surroundings are viewed with a more critical eye. Confidence is created when there is purpose while engaging with others. The photographer can see clearly that there is a story to be told from this perspective. From these experiences, it was determined that creating a digital story using images, video footage and research would be the perfect project for the Explore Costa Rica course.

The Process
Two pre-trip meetings are held a few months before the trip. At the first meeting students are given the opportunity to select a topic that is relevant to the course and is of personal interest to them. A list of suggested topics is given along with the option to propose an unlisted topic with instructor approval. Since there are students with various majors in the course, the topic can be somewhat customized to meet the student’s personal academic focus.  For example, a Recreation, Park, and Leisure student may choose to examine the topic of Adventure Recreation, an Environmental Education student may discover more about the endangered mangrove ecosystems, while a Carlson Business student may explore the difference between Free Trade and Fair Trade coffee production and export.

Students receive the video cameras that are available for the course at the first pre-trip meeting. With the funds from a small grant, 8 Kodak PlaySport video cameras were purchased for the program. These small cameras are about the size of an iPhone, are fairly durable, are waterproof up to 10 ft. underwater and can be purchased for usually around $150 each at Target, Walmart or Best Buy. Early distribution of the cameras allows students to practice and become familiar with their use and capabilities. Students may do the project with a partner and many of them choose this option.  Since there are only 15 students in the course, there are enough cameras for each pair. If there are several individuals working independently on projects, partners still share a camera but have separate memory cards that they swap out to collect their own images and information. This has worked rather well.  A check out system is used for the camera equipment. Students are responsible for returning everything intact and in good condition (camera, case, cables, etc.) or otherwise they must replace the item.

Staff from the SMART Learning Commons along with a Video and Media Specialist from the College of Education and Human Development department of Academic Technology are invited to give a presentation to the class during the first meeting. Information on the resources available to students including equipment, computer software, tutorials, consultations and various other means of support are presented to the class. Students are instructed on creating a digital story, making a plan, designing a storyboard, determining interviews to be done and footage to be collected, researching their topic for supporting information and other steps to produce a quality product. Also covered are various software and programs available such as iMovie, Windows Moviemaker, MediaMill, Animoto and Photoshop. Students with limited or no experience in video work or media production find this presentation extremely helpful.  Having these resources available is very beneficial as these guest speakers are the experts in this type of technology.

As students begin to develop their plan of action for their stories, they consult with the instructor about potential interviews that can be arranged while on the trip.  The instructor will work with the local guides and contacts to make appropriate arrangements to fit the interview opportunities into our schedule throughout the trip.

Creating Something of Value
It is one thing to work on a project and simply turn it in for a grade. It becomes something else when your digital story is posted for public viewing and reference. Not only does the instructor see your work, but so can the sixth grade teacher that searches Google or YouTube for “Deforestation of the Rainforest” and sees your video pops up.

A great deal of effort goes into the production of a video. When sharing the projects with the public, the students put their best effort forward. They feel that they are creating something informative and interesting for others to enjoy and learn from. It goes beyond just getting a grade. Students are proud of their projects and after all of the hard work and cool footage they collected from the trip they want to share it with others!

Being able to create digital productions and understanding various forms of technology and software programs are valuable and marketable skills that can be very useful for students in future employment.

That’s a Wrap
Students have about 3 months from the end of the trip until the World Premiere of their digital stories. At the premiere, all members of the class view the videos with a critical eye for providing helpful feedback on the projects. The projects are critiqued according to areas such as coverage of the topic (clear, informative, interesting, easy to follow), visual appeal (clear and attractive photos, smooth transitions, fonts, text, relevant footage adding to the story), technical (grammar, typos, pace, music selection) and other suggestions for improvements. Students then have the opportunity to tweak the video before submitting a final product for the course and for posting. The feedback from the students on this project has been overwhelmingly positive. They love the creative control they have to develop their project and the skills they learn along the way. They are very invested in the project and are much more engaged in the experience while we are traveling. They are also appreciative of the opportunity to be pushed a little out of their comfort zone in gathering images and speaking with both experts and locals in the community. It is not something most would even consider doing had it not been for this project.

Given the positive reviews and interest in this innovative use of technology, the creation of digital stores will also become the course project for the newly created “Dive Belize” course and the currently operating “Kenya Expedition” course.

The video cameras will also be used during the Freshman Seminar, “Go Outside and Play”. Students create media projects that show fun outdoor adventures that can be taken by foot, bike or public transit around the Twin Cities as they learn about the incredible natural resources in this metropolitan area.


Connie Magnuson <>
Dr. Connie Magnuson is the Director of the Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies program and Gopher Adventure Race at the University of Minnesota.As the instructor for learning abroad courses in Costa Rica, Kenya and Belize she plans to expand the creation of digital stories to all three courses as well as her seminar, “Go Outside and Play”.