Over winter break, Associate Professor John McGee led 13 students on a first-ever 12-day study abroad trip through Panama, where they learned about indigenous cultures, conservation issues, the impact of climate change, and more. “We traveled between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, experiencing three distinct environments: Panama City’s modern urban environment at the Panama Canal zone, the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in the rainforest, and the autonomous region of the San Blas Islands, inhabited by the indigenous Kuna,” McGee said.

Though the course was offered by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, the students hailed from a variety of disciplines, including aeronautical and industrial engineering, geography, psychology, wildlife conservation, economics, and environmental resources management. “The students’ multidisciplinary perspectives enriched everyone’s experience,” McGee added.

“The rainforest took the students out of their element,” he continued. “It wasn’t like anything they had ever experienced. Students learned about the interconnected nature of this tropical environment and the impact that local decisions can have globally. They saw monkeys, sloths, snakes, and exotic birds that looked as though they had escaped from Jurassic Park.”

The students developed a basic competency in wildlife camera systems, invertebrate identification, mist netting, and other field data collection techniques as they assisted scientists in the reserve, which is accessed only by a muddy, bridgeless trail. They also learned the ways tourism can impact the environment and indigenous culture, particularly on the San Blas Islands, where tourism infrastructure was undeveloped.

“Being able to experience these different cultures was incredible,” said Ali McClung, a wildlife conservation major. “Although we help native tribes economically when we visit, we can hurt their customs by trying to get them to conform to our ways. We should support them in keeping their culture and history alive.”

For geography major Davis Gilbert, the experience roused a dedication to conservation. “Every single person needs to become involved in the conservation of something,” he said. “Protecting the rainforest is incredibly important, but places all over the world need help. We are not necessarily saving the environment for the environment’s sake. We’re saving the Earth for ourselves, our children, and their children. We’re saving humanity.”