Toucans, tarantulas, hoatzins, scarlet macaws, and caiman.

Those are just a few of the species observed by Virginia Tech students this past summer while studying abroad in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Tropical Conservation and Biology, a six-credit course offered at Virginia Tech, is taught in the classroom in the spring semester, followed by a three-week study-abroad trip to Ecuador in South America.

During the summer of 2018, 11 undergraduate students trekked through the Amazon rainforest to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to their experience in the field.

Study-abroad opportunities provide valuable experiential learning for students of all ages by providing hands-on education in the field, which reinforces and expands upon concepts and ideas discussed in the classroom. From exposure to a new culture to challenges that push beyond comfort zone boundaries, there’s no doubt that these students shared a trip that will influence them for the rest of their life.

One component of the course curriculum this year was for students to submit several written entries of reflection about a subject of their choosing. Many described the amazing sights and scenery, the flora and fauna, and the traditional customs and lifestyle of the native people. 

Several students shared audio recordings of their written reflections, accompanied by photographs from the trip and even a recorded sound clip capturing the acoustics of nighttime in the Amazonian jungle.

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This audio slide show was created with the help of the Media Design Studio services at University Libraries.    

“It is a place of contradiction,” wrote Mark Feinberg, a former water: resource, policy, and management major from Arlington, Virginia, after his time spent in the Amazonian lowlands.

“The physical conditions here are the most intense that I have ever experienced. It rains for hours or even days. I’m wearing dirty, damp clothes, and I have almost no contact with the outside world. At the same time, it is the most peaceful place that I have ever been to. I am totally immersed in nature, with no worries or thoughts about what is going on elsewhere, and I am very focused on what is going on in my vicinity. I have never been so relaxed or calm in my life,” wrote Feinberg.

Another student on the trip, Evania Sempeles of Clear Brook, Virginia, shared how the study-abroad experience helped shape her career ambitions. “Going to Ecuador helped me figure out what area of reproductive biology I wanted to pursue. My goal is to apply these techniques to preserve endangered species. The Amazon showed me the beauty in biodiversity, the issues threatening it, and the increasing importance of protecting our environment.” Sempeles is now pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical science and research at St. George’s, University of London.

More stories from their trip to Ecuador are published on the Global Change Center blog and are featured in the fall 2018 edition of the Fralin Explorer Magazine.

The Tropical Conservation and Biology course is taught by Ignacio Moore, professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, and William Hopkins, professor of wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Both are faculty affiliates of the Global Change Center, housed within the Fralin Life Science Institute.  Tropical Biology and Conservation has been offered in alternating years since 2006.

Moore and Hopkins are teaming up with Peter Graham, professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, to offer a new interdisciplinary, study-abroad course in the 2019 spring semester. Students in the course, titled Darwin’s Galapagos: Evolution in the Anthropocene, will learn how current evolutionary processes are influenced by rapid environmental changes caused by human pressures, such as introduced species, over-fishing, pollution, climate change, and ecotourism. The 4-credit course is open to all majors, and will include a 10-day study-abroad trip to the Galapagos Islands over spring break. Students can find more information and application instructions for the course on the Global Change Center website.

Hopkins is enthusiastic about the new course which is supported by the Virginia Tech Global Education Office.

“I can’t think of a more exciting way to learn about evolution than to walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands. Students will see firsthand how the ecology of these islands shaped Darwin’s big idea, and how modern human activities, such as overfishing and invasive species, can disrupt these spectacular natural systems. This promises to be the trip of a lifetime,” said Hopkins.

The Global Education Office supports more than 70 Virginia Tech faculty-led study abroad programs and the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Switzerland.

Written by Jessica Zielske


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