Marc Becker's Home Page


Current Research


Fellowships and Awards

Latin American Experience: History and Conservation Biology of Panama

Chad E. Montgomery, Department of Biology
Marc Becker, Department of History


The Latin American Experience: History and Conservation Biology of Panama (LAE) course that we are proposing as an Innovative Academic Initiative (IAI) is a interdisciplinary course that combines on campus lecture and discussion based learning with off campus community immersion and service learning.  The course is designed to be a full semester experience that brings together students and faculty from diverse disciplines and people from diverse cultures to engage in interdisciplinary studies of topics based in history and conservation biology in Latin America.  

The goal of the course is to expose students to multifaceted issues in a real world context through the integration of curricular activities, civic engagement, community involvement, and service learning experiences.

The specific learning objectives of the course are:

  1. To learn and apply the fundamental concepts of conservation biology involving hands-on field based experiences 

  2. To examine the history of Panama through the eyes of historians, as well as those people who have lived it. 

  3. To facilitate the development of critical thinking skills that allow students to independently evaluate diverse topical arguments from a variety of viewpoints involving broad disciplines. 

  4. To develop an understanding of the role of citizens in a global community. 

The course would entail on-campus aspects of lecture, discussion, and project development, as well as, hands-on practical experiences in the field interacting with the government agencies, local communities, and non-government organizations (NGOs) to better understand the perspectives of multiple interest groups.  Students participating in the course will be on campus for approximately four weeks at the start of the semester to gain background knowledge related to the history of Panama, including information related to the unique geography of the country, the diverse cultures and languages of the country, the often tumultuous political and economic history. In addition, we will examine information related to environmental issues, especially considering trade-offs influencing conservation of biodiversity, subsistence and commercial agriculture, and extraction of natural resources.  For the following eight weeks, students will travel to Omar Torrijos National Park (OTNP) in west-central Panama where they will continue their education about Panama and the issues affecting the people of Panama through community interaction and immersion.  For the final weeks of the semester, students will return to campus to discuss and contemplate what they have experienced and to reflect on how those experiences may shape their beliefs and points of view.  Students will use information and impressions gained from their experiences to complete a collaborative document for dissemination to the people, NGOs, and local governments associated with OTNP.

Interactions among local communities, their respective governments, and local NGOs in relation to establishment of natural protected areas and the impact of outside influences on traditional communities provides opportunities for various areas of study including, but not limited to:

Conservation Biology—As these areas are established as protected areas, an understanding of the trade-offs between resource use by the local people and conservation of biodiversity is essential.

Government Policy—The protected areas are primarily established as a top down decision, but the relationships of these decisions to the institution of the protected areas often follows different guidelines.

Languages—In addition to taking place in a country where Spanish is the official language many of the indigenous groups in the areas have their own languages that are being overshadowed by Spanish and even English

Cultural Studies—In addition to interacting with diverse local communities, we will be interacting with an even more diverse group of cultures including Ngobe and possibly Kuna.

Economics—Many of these communities are based around subsistence living, which has been interrupted by the establishment of rules and regulations of the new protected areas.

Agriculture—Often the local inhabitants are subsistence farmers, growing enough to live on and possibly a little to sell.

Geography—The topography of the various regions is incredible, being situated on the Continental Divide with vast Atlantic and Pacific slopes and elevations ranging from 400 m to 1400 m in elevation.

Environmental Studies—Land use practices, including commercial mining, are causing debates and conflicts related to the conservation of natural resources.

Health—These communities do not have access to health facilities or money to pay for the health services.

Field Experience:

Omar Torrijos National Park in west central Panama was established surrounding the general area in which the plane of Omar Torrijos crashed, near the town of El Cope.  Omar Torrijos was not an elected official, although as the dictator of Panama he was responsible for the successful negotiation for the return of the Panama Canal to Panama.  The boundaries of the 25, 275 hectare park were literally drawn on a map and the Panama natural resource authority (Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente; ANAM) began managing the area.  There are currently eight traditional communities within the park maintaining a lifestyle without electricity and limited road access.  The residents of these communities rely primarily on subsistence farming, although recently the young men of these communities have started working for the Petaquilla Mines just outside of the park.  The mines are multi-day hikes from many of the interior villages, but the influence of the mines and larger communities is starting to filter into these historically isolated villages.

During the initial implementation of the park rules and regulations enforcement of was hit or miss, and often those rules that were enforced directly affected the well being of the local residents.  At the time the interior communities were forced to give up hunting and limit the conversion of forest to agricultural fields.  Interior residents were not consulted on the development of the park, and were therefore not supportive of the new rules and regulations.  However, over time the local residents have started taking pride in the park and all it has to offer, despite the added difficulties to their daily lives.

Recently an NGO (La MICA) was established to provide needed resources for the local communities and to establish a scientific research station in the park to help ANAM to understand what they have undertaken to protect (see attached letter).  The NGO is in the building stages for the research station, which could offer another service learning project.  Also La MICA works closely with people from the surrounding villages, as well as the local ANAM office.

Course Credit:  The course constitutes an entire semester, 15 credit hours.  Under the current curriculum we see concurrent enrollment of students in either BIO 100 Introductory Biology (4 hours) or HIST 140 Latin America During the National Period (3 hours), JINS 3XX Latin American Perspectives (3 hours), ENVS 300 Special Topics: Latin American Experience (4 hours), a special topics course in the students major that includes a writing enhanced component (5 hours), and fulfillment of the intercultural perspective requirement.  The special topics credit in the students major is an effort to facilitate diverse students taking part in the course while accumulating elective credit hours in their major plan of study (Table 1).  In order for students to gain the special topics credit in majors outside of biology (CEM) or history (MB) we will have to incorporate faculty from the particular programs who would be willing to supervise the students in their respective special topics endeavors. The LSP mode of inquiries that will be fulfilled may vary in future offerings of the course based on the topic of the particular semester and the faculty involved in overseeing the course (please see attached letters of support).

Assessment:   Student performance and evaluation of learning outcomes will be assessed in a variety of ways based on the particular credits being offered.  Assessment will be based on a series (6-8) of topic based writing assignments including shorter (4-5 pages) and longer (10-15 pages) writings with instructor(s) and peer evaluation and revision, a series (8-10) of prompted journal writings (3-5 pages) addressing the learning objectives of the course that will encourage personal reflection, self evaluation, and critical thinking, participation in student and instructor led discussions that address the issues affecting the local communities at all levels of organization (individual, family, community, NGO, local government), and participation in service learning and civic engagement activities.  In addition, those students receiving BIO 100 credit will take part in lab exercises on campus to gain an understanding of the scientific method, followed by field-based experiences in Panama that allow students to develop and participate in field experiences that utilize the scientific method in real world situations.  To differentiate between the writing enhanced experiences of JINS relative to the writing enhanced experience related to the student’s major we will incorporate two different WE templates.  The JINS course would be assessed based on prompted journal writings that would incorporate diverse topics and points of view that are interdisciplinary in nature, while the WE aspect of the major elective credit would involve a combination of written assessment of published writings, shorter topic based papers, and a larger writing experience based on extensive searches of the published literature.  The respective faculty will evaluate all writing assignments, and students will work through the revision of the writings.

Service Learning and Civic Engagement:  The service learning component of the course, which will be housed in ENVS 300, will incorporate multiple projects related to La MICA, ANAM, as well as within the communities.  Students will be responsible for choosing projects within a framework of potential projects established by professors prior to arrival in Panama.  Students, with support from the faculty, will be involved in discussions with the local people to prioritize projects and determine what the goals of the projects are, as well as implementation of the projects on the ground.  Potential projects may include, but are not limited to, road and trail maintenance (considering the only means for access to many of the communities is by dirt trail); construction of community buildings, houses, or components of the La MICA research station; assistance with development of agricultural fields; base line biological surveys of the park; oral history interviews with local inhabitants; or writing a history of changing attitudes toward conservation in local communities (please see attached letter from La MICA).

Spanish Proficiency:  There will be no requirement for Spanish language proficiency, although a working knowledge of Spanish would be beneficial.  In Panama, both elementary and secondary education involves English as a second language.  Therefore, Truman students on the IAI-LAE will assist Panamanian students in community classrooms as English instructors and tutors.  In addition, outside of the classroom, Panamanian students will interact with the Truman students in the community to assist with interpreting and encourage an interplay that will benefit both the Panamanian students as well as the Truman students, not only with language, but in other areas of cultural exchange.

Semester Schedule:  The course will be offered during Spring, 2010, due to difficulties associated with travelling during the tropical wet season and hurricane season that arise during the fall semester.  The course will involve a combination of on-campus activities and study abroad, “in the field” experiences.  Students will be on campus for the first four weeks of the semester, in Panama for eight weeks, and back on campus for the final weeks of the semester.

Continuation and Cycle of Involvement:  Not all faculty associated with the course would be involved every semester or for the entire semester the course was offered.  Part of the cycle of involvement would include consideration of the other obligations of the various faculty members (can you be off campus?  what other courses are you offering?), as well as the level of integration of various disciplines in the topic of a given semester.  In addition, the course within any one semester would be a revolving team of faculty that would participate in some or all aspects of the course (please see letters of support from faculty across campus), with the two principle faculty members staying with the course for the entire semester to offer continuity.

Table 1:  The table portrays course enrollment choices and accompanying credit hours appropriate for three different students majoring in three different departments, to illustrate how the IAI-LAE would serve students majoring both within and outside the departments of the “main” faculty offering the IAI-LAE. This example is for Latin American Experience: History and Conservation Biology of Panama, as taught by two faculty members, one from Biology and one from History.

HIST MajorBIOL Major

BIO 100 Biology (4)HIST 140 Latin America During the National Period (3)

JINS 3XX: Latin AmericanJINS 3XX: Latin American Perspectives (3)Perspectives (3)

ENVS 300: Service Learning (4)ENVS 300: Service Learning (4)

HIST Elective Course (WE) (5)BIOL Elective Course (WE) (5)


ECON Major

BIO 100 Biology (4) or HIST 140 Latin America During the National Period (3)

JINS 3XX: Latin American Perspectives (3)

ENVS 300: Service Learning (1-4)

ECON Elective Course (5) (with supervising faculty from Economics)


| Marc Becker's Home Page | |