UA Expanding Spring Break Study Abroad Options
Hans-Werner Herrmann has been taking University of Arizona students on excursions to Ecuador’s Huaorani Reserve to explore and study one of the most biologically diverse in the world and the regional home of the Native Huaorani tribe.
During the Rainforest Biodiversity in Ecuador program led by Herrmann, students are immersed in nature while navigating wild terrain with the help of members of the Huaorani tribe. The guides provide a remote view of the jungle as students observe abundant wildlife — the area is home to jaguars, macaws and howler monkeys — with the backdrop of sparsely-populated outposts.
A typical day might involve waking up at 6 a.m., taking numerous hikes between meals and presentations, and sometimes surveying the rainforest until midnight or later, said Herrmann, a research associate and adjunct professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
In this crash course on biodiversity, students might find themselves fishing for piranha or wading through water with nets to see the diverse aquatic life lurking below, all while earning academic credit.
Based on positive feedback from students in the winter break program in the Amazon, UA Study Abroad recognized an opportunity to provide more short-term explorations. Starting in 2018, students can use their spring break to tour historic sites such as Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice.
"These programs can also act as a springboard for a longer-term study abroad experience where a student can more thoroughly immerse themselves in a culture and field of study," said Harmony DeFazio, the UA's director of Study Abroad and Student Exchange.
DeFazio sees the short-term explorations as a preview of a field, quickly giving students a practical idea of what they want to pursue in a career.
Herrmann, who leads the UA expedition to the Ecuadorian rainforest each winter, said students learn about the region and also challenges related to preserving the forest.
"This area has the highest richness in biodiversity of any studied region, but at the same time it is confronted with oil exploration. That is really what makes this class interesting: the conflicting interests," Herrmann said.
"The experience in rainforest diversity is extremely important, but at least as important is seeing the people in the area and understanding their lives and challenges. It is crucial to see the way others live, their perspectives and their needs. We have to find a way together to protect the rainforest."
Alaina Michaels, a UA junior studying organismal biology, participated in the program this past winter.
"Going to the Amazon rainforest has always been a distant goal of mine and even the possibility of acceptance into this program was reason enough to apply," Michaels said.
"Although we spent a very short time in Ecuador, the experiences and skills I gained surpass everything I have done in my undergraduate career. Not only was I immersed in field work and techniques, all relevant for my future employment, but I was also able to conduct my own small research project during my time at the station."
Michaels agreed that her experience in Ecuador could lead to a longer trip overseas later in her academic career, and said she would especially enjoy studying again with Herrmann, who also leads a summer program in Namibia for six weeks.
Herrmann packs a big punch into his programs, so as he puts it, "students never get bored."
Aside from the daily treks and observations, students are required to participate in a presentation, discuss a scientific paper, keep a field notebook and conduct a research project.
Michaels appreciated the "roll-up-your-sleeves" approach to learning, saying "if you have any interest in science, fieldwork, or the outdoors, participate in this program. Students on the trip came from different backgrounds and everyone took something away that was relevant to their life and their education. I think anybody who is even considering this program will absolutely value the experience for the rest of their life."
While the winter program in Ecuador is rooted in biodiversity, Herrmann explained that students do not have to be science majors to benefit from the experience.
"This program is appropriate for any student at the UA who is not afraid to come out of their comfort zone," he said. "It is so important to have these experiences, to understand others’ perspectives and then figure out where we stand."
Faculty members interested in developing a short-term exploration should contact Harmony DeFazio, director of Study Abroad and Student Exchange and the executive director of Global Mobility Lab, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 520-626-9211.