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Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

Study tropical ecology in one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries, and explore the critical environmental and social issues affecting its conservation.

This program provides students with an immersive opportunity to study in one of the world’s most diverse ecological environments. Topics of study include tropical forest ecology; marine and wetland ecology; mammal and bird conservation; indigenous resource use; and the human-natural resource interface. Students have seven weeks of field study, and study at world-renowned research institutions including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and EARTH University.

Major topics of study include:

  • Contemporary environmental and sociocultural issues shaping Panama
  • Environmental research methods and ethics
  • Development and conservation
  • Interdependent tropical ecosystems
  • Poverty and the environment
  • Indigenous cultures and conservation

Explore Panama’s extraordinary biodiversity and the effects of human interactions with the environment.

bird study in PanamaThe SIT Panama program is composed of the following phases:

  • A four-week homestay in Panama City where students take intensive Spanish courses and begin the Comparative Tropical Ecology, Human Ecology and Conservation in the Tropics, and Research Methods and Ethics courses.
  • A seven-week period in which students conduct field studies throughout Panama and part of Costa Rica
  • A four-week Independent Study Project (ISP) period in which students focus on original research of their own choosing (see below as well as the coursework page for more information on the ISP)

Each phase of the program exposes students to different ecosystems as well as perspectives on conservation and development through interactions with a variety of stakeholders — from banana plantation workers and members of forest-dwelling communities to experts on environmental policy and evolutionary theory.

panama cityLive in Panama’s vibrant capital and largest city.

During their homestay in Panama City, students participate in field excursions and attend lectures by local professors and professionals on a variety of subjects related to development and conservation, such as community forestry and the environmental impacts of current political and social events. Students are also immersed in Spanish language study through intensive language classes and daily interaction with their host families. This three-week period helps students become acclimated to Panamanian culture and introduces them to the relevant issues of development and conservation in the tropics.

Improve your field study techniques through hands-on fieldwork at world-renowned research institutions.

Along the Caribbean coast, students study marine ecology at the Smithsonian Institute’s Bocas del Toro Research Station, the premier research station located on Colon Island. While on excursion in Costa Rica, students study sustainable agriculture and sustainable technology innovation at the renowned EARTH University in Guapiles de Limon. 

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

ResearchingComplete an independent research project on a relevant topic of your choosing.

Students spend the final part of the semester focused on an Independent Study Project (ISP). The ISP provides students with an opportunity to critically examine a specific topic related to environment and conservation in Panama. Typically, the ISP can be conducted in cloud forest highlands, coral reefs, lowland forests, mangroves, rural villages, indigenous communities, or other places appropriate to the topic.

Students 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. Some student ISPs have gained the attention and interest of local NGOs, conservation experts, and government officials.

Sample topic areas include:

  • Community resource management
  • Regeneration of canopy emergents in primary forests
  • Sustainable fisheries
  • Coral reef organisms
  • Mangrove health
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Agroforestry
  • Ecotourism for resource conservation
  • Ethnobotany


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.

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The interdisciplinary coursework in the Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation program focuses on the environmental and sociocultural issues affecting the ecology, culture, and development of Panama. Students examine the impact of human activity on the environment and the ways in which development and 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 development and conservation specialists. During the final month of the semester, students leverage their field study experience and research skills to conduct an Independent Study Project (ISP).

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.

Comparative Tropical Ecology – syllabus
(ENVI 3005 / 3 credits / 45 class 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.

Human Ecology and Conservation in the Tropics – syllabus
(ENVI 3000 / 3 credits / 45 class 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, fisher families, families living in protected areas, and in urban homes.

Spanish for the Natural Sciences I – syllabus
(SPAN 1000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences II – syllabus
(SPAN 2000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences III – syllabus
(SPAN 2500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences IV – syllabus
(SPAN 3000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences V – syllabus
(SPAN 3500 / 3 credits / 45 class 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, through tutoring programs with Panamanian college students, and on field visits.

Environmental Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ENVI 3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
This course focuses on learning how to collect and systematize ecological data to further understand issues involving biodiversity conservation. Through lectures, readings, and field activities, students study and practice a range of ecological research methods. They examine the ethical issues surrounding field research related to ecological/conservation issues and are guided through the World Learning/SIT Human Subjects Review process, which forms a core component of the course. By the end of the course students will have chosen a research topic, selected appropriate methods, and written a solid proposal for an Independent Study Project related to the program’s themes.

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR 3000 / 4 credits / 120 class 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 final presentation and formal research paper. 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; regeneration of canopy emergents in primary forests; sustainable fisheries; coral reef organisms; mangrove health; sustainable agriculture; agroforestry; ecotourism for resource conservation; ethnobotany.

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

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

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

Quetzal in PanamaStudents on the SIT Panama program engage in field study in diverse regions throughout the country and also visit EARTH University in Costa Rica. Field highlights, some of which are explained in more detail below, include:

  • Learning at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro and Barro Colorado Island
  • A bird ecology course at an Audubon Society “world’s top 10” birding site
  • A terrestrial ecology course at a UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage Site
  • A coastal ecology course at the Gulf of Chiriqui Marine National Park
  • A sustainable agriculture excursion at EARTH University in Costa Rica, the foremost sustainable agricultural college in the hemisphere
  • Visits to an organic agroforestry chocolate farm and an industrial banana plantation
  • Learning mammal behavioral traits at a monkey rehabilitation center

Bocas del Toro

One of the highlights of the program occurs during a two-week excursion to the Bocas del Toro archipelago in western Panama. Students gain a deep appreciation for Panama’s extensive biodiversity and a richer understanding of conservation-related issues within the region through encounters with the zoological wonders that abound on this sparsely populated island chain.

Bocas del Toro provides the nesting ground for four endangered species of sea turtles and for the red-billed tropicbird, one of more than 350 bird species found within the region. Over the course of the visit, students encounter a cross-section of the area’s diverse wildlife, including sloths, dolphins, monkeys, caimans, poison dart frogs, and numerous tropical fish. Students also go snorkeling in the archipelago as part of their field study coursework.

in the fieldChiriquí

The extraordinary province of Chiriquí possesses a great diversity of flora and fauna, making it one of Panama’s primary locations for ecological study and research. The Chiriquí province is home to three of the seven protected areas that make up the UNESCO La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, the only one of its kind in Central America and one of only two in Mesoamerica. Here students will travel to the cloud forest highlands, fishing communities, and beaches on the Pacific coast and visit inland indigenous communities.

During their stay in Chiriquí, students will:

  • Learn about industrial and organic agriculture in the cloud forest highlands
  • Discuss land management in the buffer zones of National Parks
  • Learn about marine biology of fisheries in the Gulf of Chiriquí Marine National Park
  • Learn about scientific approaches to studying mammal behavior at the Alouatta Monkey Rehabilitation Center

Central Provinces

One of Panama’s undiscovered treasures, the central provinces are home to diverse populations who engage in unique resource use practices and traditions. Students have the chance to explore striking natural riches in the form of stunning mountain ranges and pristine gallery forests. In the central provinces, small landholders and terratenientes come together to form a diverse mosaic of landscapes and land and coastal resource use practices.

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. Ms. 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.

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.

Lecturers for this program typically include:

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.

Angel Vega, MSc

Mr.Vega currently serves as a professor of Marine Biology at the University of Panama. He studied in the University of Havana and the University of Costa Rica and has been a speaker at national and international conferences, facilitating classes on fishing management and protected areas. He is an expert in fishing resources and the relationship between mangroves and fisheries. Professor Vega has served as an advisor for numerous undergraduate theses in marine biology and master’s theses in Ecology and the Management of Coastal Zones. He has participated in oceanographical studies about the ship Miguel Oliver in the Pacific of Panama and was also a part of the scientific team that conducted the first scientific exploration aboard a small submarine on the submarine mountain Banco Hannibal in the Gulf of Chiriquí. In his work with SIT, Angel lectures on the study of several species of fish, marine gastropods, clams, and lobsters of the estuaries and coasts of the Gulf of Chiriquí.

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 creation of 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 the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. He also serves as an advisor for several national and international NGOs such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and UICN. Professor 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.

homestay family in PanamaThe SIT Panama program includes several 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 throughout the country.  

Panama City

Experience the unique vibrancy and diversity of Panama’s capital and largest city.
Students live with families in Panama City for approximately four weeks over the course of the semester. Students experience the ways in which rural customs are sustained in the midst of booming international banking and trade businesses; hone their Spanish skills through daily practice with their families; and gain valuable exposure to Panamanian traditions and culture. As one of the leading base locations for international NGOs, Panama City offers students many opportunities for exploring development and conservation issues and initiatives.

Although exact locations can vary each semester, additional homestay locations can include:

Loma Bonita (rural mountains)

Gain valuable insight into the challenges faced by villagers when dealing with environmental conservation, eco-cultural traditions, and human survival.
Students spend approximately four days with families who live in a protected area buffer zone in the interior of the country. Family livelihoods are based on subsistence agriculture and natural resource extraction. Students live and work side by side with their hosts, sharing daily activities of food production and other chores.

Purio (rural lowlands)

Discover how cultural ties directly influence resource use and decision making for conservation.
On the Azuero Peninsula, students live with families and interact with a community known for its traditional folklore and strong cultural roots. Alongside subsistence ranchers, students participate in cultural activities and land use practices, helping to rein in cattle, mill sugar cane, milk cows, and make cheese for sale. This homestay is usually four days.

Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory

Discover how mega projects and industrial interests are threatening indigenous livelihoods.
Located in the Palo Seco protected forest, 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 aquatic ecosystems intact. Students live with families 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 a community neighboring the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Parque Internacional La Amistad, Panama’s highest mountain chain, in the province of Chiriquí.
While enjoying the cloud forest in this beautiful community, students learn about the region’s mammals and birds 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 share with students their work on environmental education, soil preservation, organic fertilizers, organic farming, environmental advocacy, and best environmental practices applied to coffee production. This homestay is typically between six and seven days.

Program Dates: Fall 2015

Program Start Date:  Aug 25, 2015

Program End Date:    Dec 7, 2015

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, 2015


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: $15,400

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 and Bocas del Toro Research Station, La Amistad UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, El Cope National Park, EARTH University in Costa Rica, and Cana Island Endangered Sea Turtle Reserve, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food)  
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board:$2,850

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 (four weeks in Panama City, a subsistence agriculture campesino community homestay, and an indigenous village homestay)  
  • 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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SIT was founded as the School for International Training and has been known as SIT Study Abroad and SIT Graduate Institute since 2007. SIT is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. (NEASC) through its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education

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