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New study abroad program draws ASU undergrads to Panama

students find a frog while on a nighttime excursion
July 29, 2014

Through study abroad programs, students experience new cultures, languages and people as they complete their coursework. But during Arizona State University’s new faculty-led Tropical Field Biology class, students also encounter three-toed sloths, poison dart frogs, monkeys, lizards and giant insects.

Eighteen School of Life Sciences undergraduate students traveled to Panama this summer to study biology, and to become fully immersed in a challenging field environment. Students stayed at a schoolhouse in Gamboa operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute – a facility that is part of an innovative education and science partnership between ASU and the Smithsonian Institute aimed at sustaining biodiversity on Earth.

“We started this summer program with two main goals,” said Nico Franz, associate professor with the School of Life Sciences. “First, we wanted the students to experience the incredible biodiversity and wealth of biological interactions that occur in a tropical rainforest habitat. Second, the students took their first steps toward becoming researchers. They posed scientific questions, developed hypotheses and conducted studies to investigate their hypotheses. Their final report was presented in the style of an authentic scientific publication.”

Classwork was anything but typical. Students explored the rainforest, discovering tropical plants, vertebrate animals and insects during daily hikes. The group had many encounters with a variety of animals, including stingless bees, tree frogs, leaf-cutter ants, venomous snakes, toucans, iguanas, tarantulas and three-toed sloths, to name a few.

Along with Franz, Dale DeNardo, a reptile expert and associate professor with the school, and life sciences teaching assistants Meghan Duell and Salvatore Anzaldo also led the students on nighttime excursions along riverbeds.

“In the evenings, we set up a mercury vapor lamp and UV lights to attract and see insects,” said DeNardo. “Particularly along the riverbanks, we had many opportunities to see a wide variety of amphibians and reptiles. Since we overlapped with the peak of the rainy season, animal species were out in great numbers. I’m sure this experience will be a highlight of our students’ undergraduate careers.”

Callie Hartson, an animal physiology and behavior major entering her junior year at ASU, said she was thrilled to be part of the study program.

“I've always wanted to explore a rainforest. When I found the course, I couldn't resist! It was the ultimate hands-on experience,” said Hartson, a Peoria, Arizona, native. “The knowledge was the most rewarding part of the whole experience. Even after living in Panama for three weeks, I still feel like I barely scratched the surface. There was so much to learn!”

Course topics varied from ecology, biodiversity, evolution and behavior to conservation, adaptation and human interactions with wildlife. Some of the highlights included climbing a 95-foot canopy tower to get a different perspective on the forest, an excursion to the Cerro Azul mountain region northeast of Panama City and a two-day trip to Barro Colorado Island – one of the most influential sites for New World tropical research worldwide.

The School of Life Sciences Tropical Field Biology class will be offered again in 2015.

The School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.