Panama | Study Abroad | Tropical Ecology | Marine Biology | Conservation

Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

Be immersed in rain forests, coral reefs, highland canopies, and coastal mangroves. Explore critical issues affecting tropical conservation and ecology and engage in seven weeks of field study in one of the world's most ecologically diverse countries.

This program will provide you with an immersive opportunity to study in one of the most biodiverse and complex ecosystems in the world. You will learn about tropical forest ecology; marine and coastal ecology; mammal, bird, and amphibian ecology; ecological field research methods; indigenous resource use; and the human-natural resource interface. You will travel for seven weeks of field study in Panama and Costa Rica and visit world-renowned research institutions, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and EARTH University.

Major topics of study include:

  • Tropical forest dynamics
  • Neotropical mammal and amphibian ecology, coral reef organisms, and avian diversity
  • Marine and coastal ecosystem connectivity
  • Ecological field research methods and methodology
  • Carbon, climate change, and resource use, including indigenous resource use
  • Contemporary socio-environmental issues shaping the tropics
One of the first things I was really impressed with is SIT’s expansive contacts and the insider opportunities that result from these unique contacts.

Program alum

Explore extraordinary biodiversity in tropical forests and Caribbean coral reefs. Learn about tropical conservation directly from resource users.

bird study in Panama

The program is composed of the following phases:

  • A two-week homestay in Panama City where you will take intensive Spanish courses and begin the thematic and research methods courses
  • A seven-week period in which you will conduct field studies throughout Panama and part of Costa Rica
  • Four weeks of independent field research in which you will focus on original research on a topic of your own choosing

During each phase of the program, you will be immersed in diverse ecosystems and stakeholder communities — from Caribbean coral reefs with indigenous fisherman to highland cloud forests with agricultural frontier families.

Engage in seven weeks of field study in one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries.

Field highlights include:

  • A tropical forest dynamics course at a UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage site
  • A marine ecology course on the Caribbean coast in the Guna Yala Comarca
  • An excursion to EARTH University in Costa Rica, the foremost sustainable agricultural college in the hemisphere
  • Learning at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Barro Colorado Island
  • A bird ecology course in the Soberania National Park — an Audubon Society “world’s top 10” birding site
  • A homestay experience in an indigenous community in a UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage site
  • A mammal research course in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor
  • An ecological research methods course in the El Cope National Park
  • Visits to an organic agroforestry chocolate farm and an industrial banana plantation
  • Learning mammal behavioral traits at a monkey rehabilitation center

Hike to study sites through highland ecosystems and lowland rain forests while living in local communities.

While living with stakeholder families in local communities, you will study and explore highland and lowland rainforest ecosystems. At five different sites and within five unique terrestrial ecosystem types, you will conduct field studies with local professors and experts on tropical biodiversity, forest dynamics, water quality, soils, insect diversity, mammal ecology, amphibians, and bird diversity and research. At these sites, you will also explore controversial conservation topics, including hydroelectric dams, sustainable agriculture, indigenous resource use, protected areas, environmental services, and ecotourism, learning directly from community leaders and conservation specialists.

Conduct extensive fieldwork in mangrove forests, threatened sea grass beds, and pristine coral reefs.

In the Caribbean Sea, in the Guna Yala Comarca, you will engage in hands-on study of coral reef diversity; sea grass bed organisms and growth potential; and mangrove diversity, growth, and reproduction. You will learn to apply marine ecology research methods when you collect data on coral reef health, organism functional diversity, and sea grass ocean floor sampling. While in the Caribbean, you will also learn about overfishing and challenges to marine protection and protected areas, and you will have the option to visit an indigenous fishing community.

Live in Panama’s vibrant capital and largest city.

During your homestay in Panama City, you will attend lectures by local professors and professionals on ecology and conservation. You will also be immersed in Spanish language study through intensive language classes and daily interaction with your host family. During this two-week period, you will become familiar with urban Panamanian culture and will be introduced to the relevant issues of ecology and conservation in the tropics.

Conduct research on a relevant topic of your choosing.

The program’s research methods course will teach you how to collect, analyze, and report ecological data necessary to further understanding of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Field study methods include biotic sampling and analysis, fauna and flora identification, population analysis, and animal behavior.

You will spend the final month of the semester working on your research. Field research will provide you with the opportunity to critically examine a specific topic related to ecology and conservation in Panama. Typically, research projects are conducted in cloud forest highlands, coral reefs, lowland forests, mangroves, rural villages, indigenous communities, or other places appropriate to the topic.

You will receive guidance from the program’s academic director and a project advisor who may be a professor from a local university, a researcher from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, or an expert from another organization. In certain cases, student research has gained the attention and interest of NGOs, conservation experts, and government officials.

Sample research topics include:

  • Rain forest dynamics
  • Tropical forest diversity
  • Mammal conservation
  • Sustainable fisheries
  • Coral reef organisms
  • Mangrove health
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Amphibian diversity
  • Ecotourism for resource conservation
  • Ethnobotany
  • Bird conservation
  • Water science
  • Carbon stocks and storage
  • Community conservation


Previous college-level coursework and/or other significant preparation in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT. There is no language requirement. Taking coursework or independently studying Spanish prior to arrival is highly encouraged

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Browse this program's Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

The interdisciplinary coursework in the Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation program focuses on the diverse terrestrial and marine ecosystems of the tropics and their conservation. Immersed in the ecosystems themselves, students study the biology and ecology of these fragile environments. Students examine the impact of human activity on the environment and the ways in which conservation practices can serve both human and environmental interests. Students participate in a variety of research and cultural activities throughout the semester and learn from researchers, professionals, practitioners, and other scientists and conservation specialists. During the final month of the semester, students leverage their field study experience and research skills to conduct independent field research.

Links to syllabi below are from current and forthcoming courses offered on this program. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

Human Ecology and Conservation in the Tropics – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
This interdisciplinary seminar, conducted in Spanish and English, includes both lectures and a strong field component. Students explore the relationships between human use of natural resources and natural resource conservation efforts. Topics studied include the challenges faced by internationally protected areas and national parks, the relationship between poverty and the environment, community forestry, indigenous cultures and conservation, industrial and sustainable agriculture, and the harvest and conservation of marine resources. As a part of their study, students learn from diverse populations when they engage in rural homestays with subsistence farmers and families living in protected areas and in urban homes.
Comparative Tropical Ecology – syllabus
(ENVI3005 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Through a comparative approach, students learn about the characteristics and dynamics of distinct yet interdependent tropical ecosystems. Students conduct field exercises in tropical cloud forests, rainforests, lowland dry forests, coral reefs, sea grass beds, and coastal mangroves. Students are introduced to tropical flora and fauna, rainforest biodiversity, ecological resilience, and similar topics.
Spanish for the Natural Sciences I – syllabus
(SPAN1000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences II – syllabus
(SPAN2000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences III – syllabus
(SPAN2500 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences IV – syllabus
(SPAN3000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences V – syllabus
(SPAN3500 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
In this course, students build their speaking, reading, and writing skills through classroom and field instruction. They practice reading scientific literature as they learn the formal terms and local expressions needed to discuss ecological issues, to conduct field research, and to interact in settings related to the program themes. Based on in-country evaluation, including oral proficiency testing, students are placed in classes according to their language level and receive further language practice in the homestays and on field visits.
Environmental Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ENVI3500 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
This course focuses on learning how to collect and systematize ecological data to understand ecosystem function and adaptation. Through field lectures, practice, and classroom learning, students learn and apply a range of ecological research methods. They examine the ethical issues surrounding field research related to ecology and conservation and are guided through the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review process. By the end of the course students will have learned, applied, and collected data from a minimum of 20 field research methods.
Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 4 credits / 120 hours)
The Independent Study Project offers students the opportunity to conduct field research on a topic of their choice within the program’s thematic parameters. The project integrates learning from the various components of the program and culminates in a formal research paper and oral presentation. Depending on student interest, research can be conducted in cloud forest highlands, coral reefs, lowland forests, mangroves, rural villages, indigenous communities, or other approved sites within Panama. Sample topic areas: community resource management; sustainable fisheries; coral reef organisms; mangrove health; sustainable agriculture; agroforestry; ecotourism for resource conservation; ethnobotany.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

La Amistad International Park UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage Site

In La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the only one of its kind in Central America and one of only two in Mesoamerica, you will experience the cool cloud forest highlands. La Amistad is considered one of the most diverse biospheres in the world due to its geographic location, altitudinal gradients, and unique ecosystems. In La Amistad Biosphere, you will study tropical forest dynamics within the park. In the reserve’s buffer zone, you will learn from conservation NGOs and ongoing local conservation projects.

Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory and Bocas del Toro

Students travel upriver by canoe to the Naso-Teribe indigenous territory. The Naso-Teribe Indigenous territory is home to the Naso people who are fighting for autonomy over their forests and rivers. They are currently threatened by multiple mega development projects. While in the territory you will learn about Naso resource management and way of life. Also while in Bocas del Toro, you will visit a teaching agroforestry farm that grows sustainable, organic chocolate and an industrial banana plantation.

Costa Rica

Located in northwest Costa Rica, EARTH University is the foremost agriculture and conservation university in the hemisphere where students from 33 countries go to study sustainable technologies, sustainable design, waste management, carbon management, and resource conservation. While there, you will live with a Costa Rican family, meet EARTH students, learn about the technologies the university has developed, and practice carbon measurement.

Guna Yala Comarca – Caribbean Coast

Located in the Caribbean, the Guna Yala Comarca is the first indigenous region to be granted autonomy in Latin America (1925). Because of its remote location and historically low pressure on its marine resources, Guna Yala possesses highly intact and diverse marine ecosystems. You will spend up to two weeks studying mangroves, sea grass beds, and coral reefs in this region. This period requires quite a bit of physical stamina, as you will be spending most of your time snorkeling and conducting your coursework in the water.

Burbayar – Mesoamerican Biological Corridor

Located at the top of the continental divide and at the tail end of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, Burbayar is an extraordinary site to study mammals and amphibians. It is known as one of only a handful of places in Central America where the chytrid virus has not decimated amphibian populations. At Burbayar, tapir, ocelot, monkey, agouti, jaguar, and peccary sightings are recorded regularly. You will engage in the mammal and amphibian module there.

Soberania National Park

In Soberania National Park, on the famed Pipeline Trail, you will spend four days learning about bird diversity and research. You will learn to set up mist nets early in the mornings, and throughout the module you will learn to manipulate, measure, and release birds safely. Soberania National Park is home to 525 bird species.

El Cope National Park

Located in the highlands, in the center of the country, where on a clear day you can see the Pacific and Caribbean from the same point, El Cope National Park is the site of the environmental field research methods. You will spend all day in the forest learning and practicing methods for testing water, soils, insects, and plants.

Barro Colorado Island – Smithsonian Institute

Located in the Panama Canal watershed, Barro Colorado Island is part of a collection of islands managed by the Smithsonian Institute and is dedicated to biological research. You will visit the island and learn about biological research Smithsonian scientists are conducting there.

Aly DanangAlyson Dagang, Academic Director

Alyson Dagang, a California native, completed her BA in international development with an emphasis in Latin American studies at American University in Washington, DC, and her PhD in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Her research was carried out with local farmers and examined biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of wood and fruit tree repopulation of grazed, extensive pastures in Central Panama. Alyson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama in the province of Panama Oeste. She has worked on numerous projects in Panama with focuses that include gender, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, community development, environmental education, forestry, and conservation. Most recently, Alyson served as an associate academic dean for Latin America with SIT. Dr. Dagang is pleased to be back as academic director of the Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation program, which she also directed from 2002 to 2005 and 2007 to 2009.

Yari JimenezYariza Y. Jiménez Charles, Program Assistant

Yariza Jiménez has worked with SIT since 2005. She studied hotel management and tourism at the Interamerican University of Panama. She currently lives in Panama City, but she frequently travels to indigenous territories and communities in Panama’s interior. As program assistant, Yari provides administrative support in addition to coordinating all program components such as food, transport, and excursions.

Lecturers for this program typically include:

Omar López, PhD

Dr. Omar López holds a PhD and an MSc in biology from the University of Utah and a BSc in botany from the University of Panama. He is currently the principle investigator for a nationwide inventory of alien plant species across Panama, which is a collaboration between Panama’s Ministry of the Environment and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Dr. Lopez has worked throughout the United States as a guest lecturer and researcher and with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Panamanian government on many important projects. He also has worked in various cross-cultural contexts as a researcher, advisor, and lecturer on a wide range of topics.

Juan mateJuan Maté, PhD

Dr. Maté completed his doctorate in marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami and has since been involved in numerous research projects both independently and with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) where he is currently a full-time field scientist. He has an interactive, dynamic, and visual field-based teaching style, which complements his vast theoretic, laboratory, and field experiences.

Milton GarciaMilton García, MSc

Milton García earned his master’s degree in ecology and natural resource conservation from the Universidad Santa María de Panamá. For the last twenty years he has been a full-time field scientist at the Smithsonian Institute where his focus is on eco-physiology. His teaching methodology is very dynamic. His seminars incorporate short educational excursions and hands-on learning.

Osvaldo Jordan, PhD

Osvaldo Jordan is a Panamanian biologist who holds a PhD in political science from the University of Florida, Gainesville. He has worked with several governmental and nongovernmental organizations in Panama, including the National Environmental Authority, the Panama Audubon Society, and Conservation International. In the last few years, he has devoted most of his effort to the Panamanian-based organization Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD), which has been working with Ngobe and Naso leaders for the defense of the natural ecosystems and traditional cultures in La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. He also serves as an advisor for several national and international NGOs such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and IUCN. Dr. Jordan was the first academic director of the SIT Panama program. He specializes in ethnic studies and political autonomy among indigenous groups and his lectures are focused on poverty, indigenous people, Panamanian political systems, and the environment.

Theory is good, but knowing how environmental issues are viewed and acted on by the public by living with the public is invaluable.

Program alum

Experience Panama’s rich cultural diversity through five homestays.

The SIT Panama program includes five different homestays exposing students to different regions and ways of life in both Panama and Costa Rica. In sharing daily life with host families, students greatly improve their Spanish and directly witness how development and conservation affect different communities.

Panama City – urban homestay

Experience the unique vibrancy and diversity of Panama’s capital and largest city by living with a family. You will live with a family in Panama City for approximately three weeks over the course of the semester. You will experience the ways in which rural customs are sustained in the midst of booming international banking and trade businesses; hone your Spanish skills through daily practice with your family; and gain valuable exposure to Panamanian traditions and culture. As one of the leading base locations for international NGOs and the United Nations, Panama City offers you many opportunities for exploring environmental and conservation issues and initiatives.

Although exact locations may vary each semester, rural homestay locations typically include:

Barrigón (rural mountains)

Gain valuable insight into the challenges faced by villagers when dealing with environmental conservation, eco-cultural traditions, and human survival. You will spend approximately six days with a family who lives in a protected area buffer zone in the interior of the country. Family livelihoods are based on subsistence agriculture and natural resource extraction.

Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory

Discover how mega projects and industrial interests are threatening indigenous livelihoods. Located in La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere, the Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory is nestled around the Teribe River where the Naso-Teribe population draws its livelihood through subsistence fishing and agriculture. Food production, still grounded in traditional practices, has kept forest and riverine ecosystems intact. Here, you will live with a family for approximately three days and learn about traditional resource use, livelihoods, and contemporary threats to the Naso-Teribe way of life.

Guadalupe (rural highlands of Chiriquí)

See conservation efforts taking place in the La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve buffer zone. While enjoying the cloud forest in this beautiful community, you will learn about the region’s cloud forests and also about the different ways in which local farmers have adapted to living in close proximity to an internationally protected area. Local organizations known for their strong environmental tradition will share with you their work on environmental education, soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic farming, and environmental advocacy. This homestay is typically between four and five days.

La Argentina, Costa Rica

Participate in daily work with your family on their sustainable farm. You will live with a farm family who partners with EARTH University in the piloting of sustainable technologies developed at the university. You will have the opportunity to learn about the technologies through the farmers and help with work on the farm.

Other accommodations include hostels, farmhouses, cabins, or small hotels.

A diversity of students representing different colleges, universities, and majors study abroad on this program. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things that connect back to their experience abroad with SIT. Learn what some of them are now doing.

Alumni of this program are currently working:

  • as marine biologists and professors.
  • as a participating scientist with NASA.
  • for conservation NGOs, universities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • in climate change policy, community gardening, and alternative energy.

Alum Abigail Outterson wins Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship

Program Dates: Fall 2016

Program Arrival Date:  Aug 30, 2016

Program Departure Date:    Dec 12, 2016

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   Jun 1, 2016


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $15,650

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in:
    • Tropical ecology
    • Marine ecology and conservation
    • Sustainable development
  • Environmental Research Methods and Ethics course on research methods and Human Subjects Review
  • Intensive language instruction in Spanish
  • All educational excursions to locations such as the Smithsonian Institute’s Barro Colorado island, La Amistad UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, El Cope National Park, and EARTH University in Costa Rica, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food)
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board: $3,100

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes during orientation, time in the program base (Panama City), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period. Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay. 
  • All homestays (three weeks in Panama City and four rural homestays including in two protected area communities, an indigenous community, and a rural village)
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend, or through the homestay.

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $ 25

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $ 50

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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