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New natural resources study abroad in Kenya, Belize

July 26, 2013

Two new natural resources field courses, one to Kenya and one to Belize, were successfully launched this summer -- enhancing students' global perspective and hands-on educational experience.

CSU students interact with local community in Kenya. <em>Photo by Michelle Greiner.</em>Integrated Social-Ecological Field Methods (NR 382A&B) is offered through the Warner College of Natural Resources and was developed to combine the social and ecological components of natural resource research and management, while also giving students the opportunity to fully immerse themselves into global environmental issues.  The five-credit, three-week courses were held from May 19 to June 8, 2013, and served as an alternate option to Ecological and Natural Resource Measurements (NR 220), also known as Pingree Park, for some natural resource majors.

KenyaStudents practice ecological field measurements with wildlife rangers. <em>Photo by Brett Bruyere.</em>

NR 382A was led by Dr. Brett Bruyere, associate professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, and Dr. Courtney Schultz, assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.  Kenya was selected as an ideal learning destination for the course as it has rich cultural and environmental diversity and is an epicenter for park and wildlife management and conservation issues.  In addition, Warner College of Natural Resources has an extensive network of faculty and staff who have built strong relationships in Kenya and a formal Key Strategic Partnership was signed between CSU and University of Nairobi in December 2012, making it an ideal time to launch the new course there.

The interdisciplinary course included curriculum on topics such as natural resource management, conservation, research design, data collection and analysis, resilience theory, natural resource management ethics, cultural resource history, and common-pool resource theory.  It then incorporated both ecological and social field experiences, including rangeland measurement, plant species i.d., participatory mapping, focus groups, and interviewing.Students smile with village members in Samburu, Kenya. <em>Photo by Crystal Brindle.</em>

“The course in Kenya really gave students the opportunity to apply what they have been learning in a real-world scenario,” said Schultz. “Being in Kenya, where issues are felt so acutely, students got direct exposure to the complexity of managing natural resource challenges in a way that is sustainable for both humans and the environment.”

Students spent the majority of their time in Samburu, visiting with local women’s villages and conducting research in the community, Samburu National Reserve, and the Kalama Conservancy.  They also visited Nairobi and the Nakuru region and throughout the course worked closely with representatives from the University of Nairobi and local community members.  In the Samburu region, students met with pastoral communities to learn about tourism impacts, wildlife research, and rural monitoring techniques.  Hiking, guided tours of a national wildlife reserve and visiting local schools were also part of this unique study abroad opportunity.

The rigorous coursework included field journal reports, team presentations, research papers, and each student was responsible for piloting a unique research project which integrated ecological and social components and utilized the scientific principles they had learned.Lions were one of many species observed by students during the course in Kenya. <em>Photo by Crystal Brindle.</em>

“We needed to compare the field, the ecology, the landscape of the area, and how the community is affected by it,” said Marcus Lively, a student dual-majoring in Natural Resource Management and Natural Resources Economics.  “We had to build strong connections to the people in the area, conduct interviews to get perspectives on plants, wildlife, absolutely everything.”

Complete immersion into a rural pastoral community gave students the chance to build personal relationships with local community members and become familiar with their challenges in dealing with survival, economic pressures, and access to formal education.  The group worked primarily with women and children, teaching environmental education, researching for the course and also learning from the experiences and culture of the community. Students were also required to camp for a large portion of the trip.Students experiencing a wildlife safari in Kenya. <em>Photo by Brett Bruyere.</em>

“This course taught me how to do research in the field. Until this experience, I had only thought of research in abstract terms,” said Crystal Brindle, a student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.  “I learned how to collect social and ecological data and use it in a research project, and how to interact and involve people in research despite a language barrier.”

Students not only took home a greater understanding of social-ecological systems, but also came back changed.  “It’s definitely the best place I’ve ever been to, the best experience I’ve ever had. You have some days where you don’t have running water, can’t take showers, you don’t have a nice bed. Water is even scarce but still, it was all worth it,” said Lively.


The course was led by Dr. Jennifer Solomon, assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.  The course was held in Belize, a small nation in Central America vibrant with cultural history and home to a myriad of ecosystems as well the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere.  As an English-speaking nation, holding the course in Belize enabled students to easily converse with Belizeans and practice social science methods effectively while still gaining international experience learning about, and in, a foreign culture and landscape.Student Marshall Thurgood snorkeling in Belize next to Elkhorn coral colony, which is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red list.

The Belize course focused on understanding social-ecological systems as well as field methods and covered a range of topics such as agritourism, ecotourism, and natural resource management and conservation.  Marine plastics pollution was also a central teaching example for the curriculum.  By integrating current local issues, the course was able to take subjects that students had read about in their studies, and illustrate how they are brought together in practice.  

“Embedding students in a real-world situation allows students to see and experience first-hand the intricate challenges of managing large-scale social-ecological systems, as well as fosters both professional and personal growth,” said Solomon. “They get to speak one-one-one with government officials and organizations, and gain an understanding of the importance of collaboration and innovation to create solutions for natural resource challenges.”

Some of the course experiences included snorkeling in numerous marine reserves, and working with rangers on ecological and social monitoring in and around the Bladen Nature Reserve with a local conservation and development organization, Ya’axche Conservation Trust.  The class was also introduced to life in Mayan village communities and Garifuna and Creole cultures, learning of the important roles these communities play in ecosystem management in Belize. Students study lion fish, which are invasive in Belize.

 “I spent as much time as I could talking to the local people and learning about their way of life,” said student Marshall Wolf. “Belizeans are very welcoming and laidback and some of the people I spoke with had lived in the same area their whole lives. It was awesome to be exposed to the different culture and to be a part of it.”

Students created their own research project ideas and gained experience in ecological and social field measurements through hands-on studies that they conducted and applied to their course project. The culmination of this course was in the town of Punta Gorda, and students presented their project findings to the class as well as local NGOs and community members.

Often, students worked in open ocean conditions and embarked upon beautiful but physically-challenging hikes. While the course was sometimes mentally and physically exhausting, students were enthusiastic to take full advantage of the experience.Students learn about tropical ecosystems and challenges in sustainable management from environmental experts in Belize.

“It’s eye-opening to see how much time it takes to do your research compared to how it would be in the States. Five credits in three weeks is a lot of work, late nights and early mornings full of lectures, journaling and field work,” said Cameron Heimerdinger, a student dual-majoring in natural resources management and natural resource economics. “My favorite part was Tobacco Caye:  it was eight days on an island where we were snorkeling, doing lectures, and working on our research project - It was great!”

The NR 382B course provided students a chance to undertake new challenges in an exotic location, learning from their professors, each other, and the Belizean communities that they interacted with.

“It was a fantastic course! The mangroves, the roots are covered with little mini ecosystems, and it blew my mind, and was so exciting to see such completely different environments,” Allison Reser, an Ecosystem Science and Sustainability major at CSU. “The reason I signed up for this course is because it is my goal is to find a career that combines social and ecological work, sustainability, and I got to meet with organizations whose missions are exactly what I want to do. It was so cool to see that those careers are out there – that my dream job exists.”