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Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

Explore rain forests, coral reefs, highland canopies, and coastal mangroves as you study tropical conservation and ecology.

At a Glance




Relevant previous coursework

Language of Study


Courses taught in



Sep 2 – Dec 15

Program Countries


Program Excursion Countries

Costa Rica

Program Base

Panama City

Critical Global Issue of Study

Climate & Environment


Why study abroad in Panama?

Panama has some of the world’s most biodiverse and complex ecosystems, from highland cloud forests to Caribbean coral reefs. You will conduct seven weeks of field studies in five unique settings in Panama and Costa Rica. Learn how to estimate forest biodiversity, evaluate coral reef health, calculate mangrove carbon, identify tropical fish species, and quantify neotropical mammal abundance among other skills.

In Panama City, one of the leading bases for international NGOs and the United Nations, you’ll explore conservation topics such as sustainable agriculture, Indigenous resource use, and ecotourism. You will also conduct four weeks of independent, original field research project on a topic of your choice.

Your program also includes four homestays during which you will learn about urban and rural life, experience local culture, and examine the environmental challenges these communities face.

In addition, you will develop the Spanish language skills needed to discuss ecological issues and conduct field research through classroom learning, cultural immersion, homestays, fieldwork, and excursions.


  • Study in one of the most biodiverse and complex ecosystems in the world.
  • Engage in seven weeks of travel and field study in Panama and Costa Rica.
  • Hike highland ecosystems and lowland rain forests and live in local communities.
  • Conduct extensive fieldwork in a wide variety of tropical and marine ecosystems.


Previous college-level coursework or background in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT. There is no language requirement. Taking coursework in or independently studying Spanish prior to arrival is highly encouraged. Students will spend time in the water and must be able to swim.

program map


La Amistad International Park UNESCO Biosphere World Heritage Site

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

Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory and Bocas del Toro

Travel upriver by canoe to the Naso-Teribe Indigenous territory, home to the Naso people who have recently gained autonomy over their forests and rivers against threats by huge development projects. You will learn about Naso resource management and way of life. In Bocas del Toro, you will also 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. Students from 33 countries come here to study sustainable technologies, sustainable design, waste management, carbon management, and resource conservation. You will live with a Costa Rican family, meet EARTH students, learn about technologies the university has developed, and practice carbon measurement.

Guna Yala Comarca – Caribbean Coast

In 1925, the Guna Yala Comarca became the first indigenous region to be granted autonomy in Latin America. Because of its remote location and historically low pressure on marine resources, Guna Yala is largely an intact and diverse marine ecosystem. You will spend up to two weeks studying mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. This requires physical stamina, as you will spend most of your time snorkeling and conducting coursework in the water.

Nusagandi – Mesoamerican Biological Corridor

At the top of the continental divide and the tail end of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, Burbayar is an extraordinary place to study mammals and amphibians. It is one of only a handful of places in Central America where the chytrid virus has not decimated amphibian populations. Tapir, ocelot, monkey, agouti, jaguar, and peccary sightings are recorded regularly.

Soberania National Park

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

El Cope National Park

On a clear day in the country’s central highlands, you can see the Pacific and Caribbean from the same point. You will spend all day in the forest learning and practicing environmental field research methods for understanding forest dynamics and ecology.

Barro Colorado Island – Smithsonian Institute

In the Panama Canal watershed, Barro Colorado is part of a collection of islands managed by the Smithsonian Institute and dedicated to biological research.

Please note that SIT will make every effort to maintain its programs as described. To respond to emergent situations, however, SIT may have to change or cancel programs.


Program Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of the program, students will be able to: 

  • Articulate the anthropogenic drivers of terrestrial habitat loss and marine ecosystem degradation in the Tropics. 
  • Explain the ecological foundations of tropical biodiversity. 
  • Apply 20 terrestrial and marine scientific field methods for effective data collection.  
  • Independently conduct an effective, ethical, and achievable scientific field research project in a tropical context. 
  •  Analyze the main human and environmental factors that induce resource use, conservation and/or conflict in Panama. 
  • Examine the similarities and differences among the main tropical ecosystems, including major flora, fauna, and biophysical processes. 
  • Enhance communicative proficiency in Spanish for the natural sciences.   

Read more about Program Learning Outcomes.


Access virtual library guide.

The following syllabi are representative of 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.

Please expand the sections below to see detailed course information, including course codes, credits, overviews, and syllabi.

Key Topics

  • Tropical forest dynamics
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  • Neotropical mammal, marine, avian, and amphibian ecology
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  • Marine and coastal ecosystem connectivity
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  • Ecological field research methods and methodology
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  • Carbon, climate change, and resource use
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  • Contemporary socio-environmental issues shaping the tropics

Human Ecology and Conservation in the Tropics

Human Ecology and Conservation in the Tropics – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 3 credits)

This interdisciplinary seminar, conducted in 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 local communities when they engage in rural homestays with subsistence farmers and families living in protected areas and in urban homes.

Comparative Tropical Ecology

Comparative Tropical Ecology – syllabus
(ENVI3005 / 3 credits)

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

Spanish for the Natural Sciences I – syllabus
(SPAN1003 / 3 credits)

Spanish for the Natural Sciences II – syllabus
(SPAN2003 / 3 credits)

Spanish for the Natural Sciences III – syllabus
(SPAN2503 / 3 credits)

Spanish for the Natural Sciences IV – syllabus
(SPAN3003 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)

Spanish for the Natural Sciences V – syllabus
(SPAN3503 / 3 credits)

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

Environmental Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ENVI3500 / 3 credits)

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

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 4 credits)

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 research topics include:

  • Rain forest dynamics
  • Tropical forest diversity
  • Regeneration of canopy emergents in primary forests
  • 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 and resource management

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


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

Panama City (Urban Homestay)

Live with a local family for about three weeks in Panama’s capital and largest city. Experience rural customs amidst international banking and trade businesses; hone your Spanish skills; and learn about Panamanian traditions and culture. As a major base for international NGOs and the United Nations, Panama City offers many opportunities to explore environmental and conservation issues and initiatives.

Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory

Live with a family for three days and learn about traditional resource use, livelihoods, and contemporary threats to the Naso-Teribe way of life, such as mega project and industrial interests.

Guadalupe (rural highlands of Chiriquí)

During this four-day homestay, you will see conservation efforts in La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve buffer zone and learn how local farmers have adapted to living near a protected area and about local organizations’ work on environmental education, advocacy, and preservation

La Argentina, Costa Rica

Live with a farm family who partners with EARTH University to develop sustainable technologies and participate in daily work on your host family’s farm.

Excursion & Orientation Accommodations

Hostels, farmhouses, cabins, or small hotels.

Career Paths

Students on this program represent a wide range of colleges, universities, and majors. Many of them pursue academic and professional work that connects back to their experience abroad with SIT. Recent positions held by alumni include:

  • Associate professor and program coordinator of environmental studies at San Francisco State University

  • Participating scientist at NASA

  • Director of a sustainable energy program in Maine

  • Medical doctor, New York, NY

Faculty & Staff

Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

Alyson Dagang, PhD bio link
Alyson Dagang, PhD
Academic Director
Arcadio Balibbiler Castillo bio link
Arcadio Balibbiler Castillo
Field Coordinator
Eric Manzané-Pinzón, PhD bio link
Eric Manzané-Pinzón, PhD
Academic Coordinator
Yariza Y. Jiménez Charles bio link
Yariza Y. Jiménez Charles
Program Assistant
Yuritza L. Lara Cordoba bio link
Yuritza L. Lara Cordoba
Student Affairs Assistant

Discover the Possibilities

  • Cost & Scholarships

    SIT Study Abroad is committed to ensuring that international education is within reach for all students. We believe in the transformative power of immersive, intercultural experiences and are dedicated to supporting students in their educational journey.

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    A critical step in preparing for your study abroad program is planning how you will maintain your health and wellbeing. Please review the following information carefully and contact [email protected] with any questions or concerns.

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    SIT Study Abroad Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation

  • SIT Panama Alumni Initiative

    In 2022, the SIT Panama alumni organization, Few for Change, awarded 62 scholarships to students in the Ngäbe-Buglé Indigenous Comarca in Panama. SIT Panama alumni collaborate throughout the year to support students to ensure that they have the opportunity to stay in school.

    Learn more
  • Alum’s fish film nets attention

    For Rice University senior Antonia Brown, SIT’s program Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation was a great fit – a chance to do real field research. But that opportunity, she admits, was one she found daunting at first.

    Read More
  • Research in Panama Leads Student to Present at Latin-American Conference

    Caroline McSherry ’17 has had a momentous senior year, thanks to a study-away semester in Panama in the fall and the opportunity to present research that she did in the Central American country at a national conference on Latin American studies this spring.

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