Explore rain forests, coral reefs, highland canopies, and coastal mangroves as you study tropical conservation and ecology in one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries.
Study in one of the most biodiverse and complex ecosystems in the world.
Learn about tropical forest ecology; marine and coastal ecology; mammal, bird, and amphibian ecology; ecological field research methods; indigenous resource use; and the relationships between humans and natural resources.
Engage in seven weeks of travel and field study in Panama and Costa Rica and visit world-renowned research institutions, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and EARTH University.
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. Field highlights include:
- A tropical forest dynamics course and homestay 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
- The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Barro Colorado Island
- A bird ecology course in the Soberania National Park, named by the Audubon Society as one of the world’s top 10 birding sites.
- A mammal research course in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor
- An ecological research methods course in El Cope National Park
- An organic agroforestry chocolate farm and an industrial banana plantation
Hike the highland ecosystems and lowland rain forests while living in local communities.
At five sites within five unique terrestrial ecosystems, 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.
Conduct extensive fieldwork in mangrove forests, threatened seagrass beds, and pristine coral reefs.
In the Caribbean Sea of the Guna Yala Comarca, study coral reef diversity; seagrass bed organisms and growth; and mangrove diversity, growth, and reproduction. Learn marine ecology research methods and examine overfishing and challenges to marine protection and protected areas.
Live in Panama’s vibrant capital and largest city.
During your homestay in Panama City, you will attend lectures 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 ecology and conservation in the tropics.
Conduct four weeks of independent, original field research on a topic of your choice.
Read more about the ISP below
Critical Global Issue of Study
Climate | Environment
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 in or independently studying Spanish prior to arrival is highly encouraged.
Key Topics of Study
Key Topics of Study
- 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
- Explore controversial conservation topics including hydroelectric dams, sustainable agriculture, indigenous resource use, protected areas, environmental services, and ecotourism.
The interdisciplinary coursework on this 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 and examine the impact of human activity on the environment and the ways in which conservation practices can serve both human and environmental interests.
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.
- 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
- (SPAN1003 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
- Spanish for the Natural Sciences II – syllabus
- (SPAN2003 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
- Spanish for the Natural Sciences III – syllabus
- (SPAN2503 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
- Spanish for the Natural Sciences IV – syllabus
- (SPAN3003 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
- Spanish for the Natural Sciences V – syllabus
- (SPAN3503 / 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.
Program in a minute-ish
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
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 are fighting for 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.
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 its marine resources, Guna Yala is a largely intact and diverse marine ecosystem. You will spend up to two weeks here 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.
Burbayar – 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 testing water, soils, insects, and plants.
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.
Faculty and Staff
Faculty and Staff
Alyson Dagang, PhD, Academic Director
A California native, Alyson 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, carried out with local farmers, examined biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of wood and fruit tree repopulation of grazed pastures in central Panama. She has served as SIT Study Abroad associate academic dean for Latin America. She is pleased to be back as academic director of this program, which she also directed from 2002 to 2005 and 2007 to 2009. Alyson was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Panamanian province of Panama Oeste. She has worked on projects focused on gender, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, community development, environmental education, forestry, and conservation.
Yariza Y. Jiménez Charles, Program Assistant
Yari studied hotel management and tourism at the Interamerican University of Panama. She has worked with SIT since 2005. She currently lives in Panama City, but frequently travels to indigenous territories and communities in Panama’s interior. As program assistant, she provides administrative support and coordinates all program components such as food, transport, and excursions.
Lecturers for this program typically include:
Milton García, MSc
Milton earned his master’s degree in ecology and natural resource conservation from the Universidad Santa María de Panamá. For the past 20 years he has been a full-time field scientist at the Smithsonian Institute, where his focus is on eco-physiology. His seminars incorporate short educational excursions and hands-on learning.
Osvaldo Jordan, PhD
Osvaldo is a Panamanian biologist who holds a PhD in political science from the University of Florida, Gainesville. He was the first academic director of the SIT Panama program. Osvaldo specializes in ethnic studies and political autonomy among indigenous groups, His lectures focus on poverty, indigenous people, Panamanian political systems, and the environment. He has worked with the National Environmental Authority, the Panama Audubon Society, and Conservation International. For the past several years he has devoted most of his effort to the Panamanian-based organization Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD), which works with Ngobe and Naso leaders to defend the natural ecosystems and traditional cultures in La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Omar López, PhD
Omar 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 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. Omar has worked throughout the United States as a guest lecturer and researcher. He also has worked in cross-cultural contexts as a researcher, advisor, and lecturer.
Juan Maté, PhD
Juan completed his doctorate in marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami and has since been involved in research projects both independently and with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where he is a full-time field scientist. His interactive, dynamic, and visual field-based teaching style complements his theoretic, laboratory, and field experiences.
The homestay is an integral part of the SIT experience. During your homestay, you’ll become a member of a local family, sharing meals with them, joining them for special occasions, talking with them in their language, and experiencing the host country through their eyes. Homestay placements are arranged by a local coordinator who carefully screens and approves each family. Students frequently cite the homestay as the highlight of their program. Read more about SIT homestays.
The SIT Panama program includes five homestays, exposing students to diverse regions and ways of life in Panama and Costa Rica.
Panama City (urban homestay)
Live with a local family for approximately three weeks over the course of the semester to experience the vibrancy and diversity of Panama’s capital and largest city. Experience rural customs in the midst of booming international banking and trade businesses; hone your Spanish skills through daily practice; 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 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)
Learn the challenges faced by villagers dealing with environmental conservation, eco-cultural traditions, and human survival. Spend approximately six days with a family in a protected area buffer zone where livelihoods are based on subsistence agriculture and natural resource extraction.
Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory
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. Discover how mega projects and industrial interests are threatening indigenous livelihoods. In La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere, the Naso-Teribe Indigenous Territory is nestled around the Teribe River where the Naso-Teribe population survives through subsistence fishing and agriculture. Food production, still grounded in traditional practices, has kept forest and riverine ecosystems intact.
Guadalupe (rural highlands of Chiriquí)
During this homestay, which is typically between four and five days, you will see conservation efforts in La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve buffer zone while enjoying the cloud forest in this beautiful community. Learn how local farmers have adapted to living near an internationally protected area. Local organizations known for their strong environmental traditions will share their work on environmental education, soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic farming, and environmental advocacy.
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.
Other accommodations include hostels, farmhouses, cabins, or small hotels.
Independent Study Project
Independent Study Project
Spend the final month of the semester working on your independent research. Apply what you learn in the Research Methods course to collect, analyze, and report ecological data. Field study methods include biotic sampling and analysis, fauna and flora identification, population analysis, and animal behavior. 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
- Regeneration of canopy emergents in primary forests
- Mammal conservation
- Sustainable fisheries
- Coral reef organisms
- Mangrove health
- Sustainable agriculture
- Amphibian diversity
- Ecotourism for resource conservation
- Bird conservation
- Water science
- Carbon stocks and storage
- Community conservation and resource management
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:
- Conservation biology professor at Colgate University, Hamilton, NY
- Participating scientist at NASA
- Director of a sustainable energy program in Maine
- Medical doctor, New York, NY
Cost and Scholarships
Cost and Scholarships
SIT Study Abroad is committed to making international education accessible to all students. Scholarship awards generally range from $500 to $5,000 for semester programs and $500 to $3,000 for summer programs. This year, SIT will award more than $1.5 million in scholarships and grants to SIT Study Abroad students.
SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding for the term during which they are studying with SIT. This award can be applied to any SIT program. Qualified students must complete the scholarship portion of their application. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.
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.
Books & Supplies: $ 50
International Phone: Each student must bring a phone with them to their program.
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.