BIO 270 "Tropical Ecology of Belize" Runs Inaugural Trip Over J-Term

Byline: Alyse Lynch

Posted: September 25, 2011

The Biology Department offered a course "Tropical Ecology" to Belize during J-Term. Nine Wilson students and three alumnae accompanied Laura Altfeld, Asst. Prof. of Biology and Brad Engle, Assoc. Prof. of Biology, to Belize in Central America. Billboard Reporter, Alyse Lynch spoke with Dr. Altfeld about the trip.

AL: I'm trying to remember, the trip was a biology class correct?

LA: "Tropical Ecology of Belize" was a topics course offered by the biology department. This class was open to students of any discipline and major. Although there was an application process, there were no academic prerequisites for the course and it satisfied an NSL or ESL trans-disciplinary requirement.

AL: How long did you stay?

LA: The course ran the full length of J-Term. We spent the first week in class here on campus. The second week we left for a two-week stay in Belize. We returned the day before spring classes started.

AL: How many people went?

LA: Two faculty members, Drs. Laura Altfeld and Brad Engle, took nine full-time Wilson students and three Wilson alumnae.

AL: What did you do there academically?

LA: This course was fully academic. The objectives of the course were to learn about (1) the ecology of several of Belize's most prominent ecosystems, namely tropical rainforest, coral reef ecosystems, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests; (2) unique organisms that are endemic to Belize; (3) environmental policy and conservation practices in Belize; (4) cultural diversity in Belize and how different cultures (namely the Maya and Garifuna) approach conservation. Coursework included reading assignments from an assigned text and the primary literature, participating in class discussions, a comprehensive exam, keeping a journal, and a final project.

The purpose of visiting Belize, versus keeping this as an on-campus course, was to provide students with the opportunities to be immersed in the ecosystems we were studying. To learn a language it's best to visit a country so to be immersed in the language and culture under study. The same principle applies for ecology; to learn about coral reef ecosystems, for example, one should spend time on a coral reef; immersive experiences deepen learning. In Belize, we spent all of our time in these ecosystems, collecting data, experiencing the conditions, observing biodiversity, and learning about each system from native peoples that rely on them for living (i.e. they live in them, grow food in them, hunt in them, etc.). We also had ample opportunities to engage Belizean people on their views of conservation – it was an extraordinary opportunity for each of us to establish relationships with Belizean people. Our accommodations were field stations and tents in or nearby these ecosystems; we rarely had access to indoor plumbing. We spent our days fully outdoors, hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and visiting important sites such as the Belize Zoo, the Smithsonian Research Station on Carrie Bow Cay, and Mayan ruins (including the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and the ancient city of Lubaantun).

AL: Were there strictly non-academic trips while you were in Belize?

LA: We definitely had fun while we were in Belize but, no, there were no non-academic trips while in Belize.

AL: Is there anything else you want billboard to know about the trip?

LA: Yes. One, that several students that went on this trip will be presenting their experiences and research during a Women's Studies Group-sponsored event on Friday, 3/11, at noon in the Women's Studies Lounge. Keep an eye out for email reminders about this event too. Please come out and learn more about Belizean ecology and culture.

And two, that this course will be offered again in J-Term 2013. I encourage students from all disciplines to consider applying for participation in the course. Remember that this course satisfies an NSL or ESL requirement. Seats will be limited, however, so get your applications in on time. Applications will be due in spring 2012. Keep an eye out for email announcements of informational sessions about the course next fall.

Last Updated: October 14, 2011

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