Panama | Environment | Summer

Panama: Marine Ecology & Blue Carbon Conservation in the Pacific & Caribbean (Summer)

Conduct extensive fieldwork in coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, and seagrass beds in the tropical Pacific and the Caribbean and learn to measure and quantify blue carbon and marine biodiversity.

Panama’s unique evolutionary history and biodiversity make it an ideal location for studying marine ecology and blue carbon conservation. On this program you will explore marine biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Snorkel while conducting research on coral reefs and seagrass beds and visit mangroves and wetlands to study carbon accumulation and sequestration. By the end of the program, you will gain a deeper understanding of the vital role coastal ecosystems play in climate change mitigation, and you will become adept at applying methodologies for assessing and measuring marine biodiversity.

Major topics of study include:

  • Marine organism diversity across marine and coastal ecosystems
  • Wetland, mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef interdependence and functional diversity
  • The emerging field of blue carbon and its relevance and integral role in the context of climate change
  • Methods and methodology for measuring blue carbon and marine organism biodiversity
  • The role of wetland, mangrove, coral reef, and seagrass bed ecosystems in the carbon process, along with needs and threats to each ecosystem

Note: This program is extremely hands-on. Students should expect to spend extensive time in the water and must be able to swim well.


Explore Panama’s ecosystems during immersive field exploration

Spend equal time conducting research in both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Highlights include:

  • The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas de Toro, known for the San San Pond Sak UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and International RAMSAR site
  • Coiba Island UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its mangroves and coral reefs
  • Guna Yala Indigenous Autonomous Territory, to study its seagrass beds and coral reefs

Marine ecology and blue carbon conservation seminar

sifting through seagrassOn this program, you will gain comprehensive knowledge of coastal ecosystems, marine organisms, blue carbon, and Panama’s threatened ecosystems and species, which are among the most threatened on the planet. In this course, you will divide your time between the Pacific and Caribbean, studying carbon accumulation and preservation as well as exploring marine biodiversity.

Independent field research

For the last part of the program, you will return to Guna Yala, Bocas del Toro, or Coiba Island to engage in independent field research on blue carbon, marine organism diversity, coral reefs, seagrass beds, or a related topic of interest to you. Specific emphasis for the field project will be on the application of field research techniques, data gathering, data analysis, and the presentation of research results.


Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT. There is no language prerequisite. You will spend most of the time in the water and must be able to swim well.

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.

Marine Ecology and Blue Carbon Conservation in the Pacific and Caribbean – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Through a comparative approach, this course explores the emerging field of blue carbon conservation and the ecology and the organismal biodiversity of four major ecosystem types (wetlands, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs). At three locations, two in the Caribbean and one in the Pacific, students participate in classroom lectures and engage in extensive field study and practice. Students apply ecological research techniques, including underwater transects and quadrats, ocean floor coring, underwater vegetation productivity, water turbidity assessment, and carbon stock and accumulation surveys. The course takes place on Coiba Island, Bocas del Toro Island, and the Guna Yala Comarca.
Marine Ecology and Blue Carbon Field Project – syllabus
(ENVI3060 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
This course offers students the opportunity to carry out field research on a topic related to the program content. Students choose from pre-planned projects on specific topics related to marine ecology, biodiversity, and blue carbon. Pre-planned projects form part of larger, ongoing research endeavors in the area and are located at the program field sites (Bocas del Toro, Coiba Island, and Guna Yala). After completing the first phase of the program, students return to the program sites independently and engage in research. Students are guided by project advisors during their research.

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

After arriving in Panama, you will travel to Bocas del Toro, where program orientation will begin. There, you will learn the basics of carbon chemistry, the carbon cycle, and ocean carbon flows, as well as the importance of coastal ecosystems and the potential role of marine ecosystems in mitigating climate change.

You will spend the full six-week program conducting blue carbon and marine ecology field exploration in both the Pacific and Caribbean. After completing the first phase of the program, you will choose a previously visited region to conduct your own individualized research.

San San Pond Sak Wetlands UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and International RAMSAR Site, Bocas de Toro, Caribbean

You will begin extensive field exploration in the Bocas de Toro region, specifically at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which has established a research and educational site on Isla Colón, giving scientists and students access to an astounding variety of marine life in untouched forests, a coastal lagoon system, and multiple reefs and islands. Here, you will study coastal wetland ecosystems in a complex setting—where fisheries, growing tourism, and large populations of endangered marine wildlife provide a representative region for students to learn about Caribbean biodiversity and blue carbon. Course content in Bocas de Toro includes field briefings and application of methods and methodology in situ. In the San San Pond Sak wetlands, you will learn about wetland ecology and how to measure blue carbon stocks in four unique habitats, including tropical peatlands, orey (Campnosperma panamensis) forests, mangroves, and manatee grass beds. 

Coiba Island UNESCO World Heritage Site – Pacific Ocean Mangroves and Coral Reefs

Coiba Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of four key sites in the Eastern Tropical Seascape Biological Corridor, the largest island in Mesoamerica, and one of the top 10 diving sites in the world. Here, you will explore the key role mangroves play in marine organism reproductive cycles and witness up close the breathtaking biodiversity of coral reefs, which house, worldwide, 30% of marine biodiversity while occupying only .01% of the ocean floor. You will learn about the impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems, especially due to factors like fluctuating ocean temperatures, acidification, and coral reef calcification.  

Comarca Guna Yala – Caribbean Coral Reefs and Seagrass Beds

In Guna Yala, you will conduct comparative studies of the coral reef ecosystems and organism diversity of the Caribbean and the Pacific. Guna Yala, the first indigenous territory to be granted autonomous rule in Latin America (in 1938), is considered to possess one of the best conserved coral reef systems in the Caribbean due to its isolation, low population pressure, and prohibition of scuba diving in the region, although these conditions are beginning to change. Here, you can expect to study and snorkel with a vast variety of marine creatures in the region. You will also explore in depth seagrass beds and the key role these play in sustaining life in the oceans. Seagrasses are considered to be among the fastest growing plants on earth, and are a key piece in blue carbon stocks and storage.   

Aly DanangAlyson Dagang, PhD, 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. She carried out research 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 emphases 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 also the academic director for SIT’s semester-long Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation program.

Omar LopezOmar 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 National Environment Authority 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.

Program Dates: Summer 2017

Program Arrival Date:  Jun 18, 2017

Program Departure Date:    Jul 28, 2017

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:   Apr 1, 2017

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: $6,750

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in marine ecology and blue carbon conservation
  • All educational excursions and fieldwork
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board: $1,750

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. Students will stay at research stations, small hostels, and dormitories. This includes during orientation, on all excursions, and during the Marine Ecology and Blue Carbon Field Project
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered by SIT Study Abroad, directly or through a stipend

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.

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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