UW-Stout News Story

Students see natural wonders, biodiversity in Belize, Guatemala

February 21, 2012

For 10 days in January, a group of University of Wisconsin-Stout students experienced a classroom unlike any they had ever seen before.

It was filled with birds, plants, animals and marine life of all shapes, sizes and colors. Virtually all of it was new to them.

This classroom had no walls: They were studying the natural wonders of Belize and Guatemala in Central America.

“There was literally a new creature in every crevice and under every rock, even in the ocean,” said Theresa Olson, an applied science major from Minneapolis. “On a daily walk around our island, I lifted a conch shell out of the water, and an octopus was staring back at me.”

A total of 17 students accompanied the instructor, Michael Bessert, an assistant professor of biology. It’s the first time Natural History of the Neotropics was offered. Bessert hopes to make it an annual class during Winterm.

“Experiential learning is powerful, particularly in a foreign country when students are taken out of their comfort zone,” said Bessert, who was accompanied by Charles Bomar, a biology professor and director of the applied science program.

Students traveled dirt back roads by bus, boated on a crocodile-inhabited river, snorkeled next to a giant stingray, went deep into an ancient cave to see Mayan ruins and lived on a mangrove island that had no running water, to mention a few of their experiences.

“I can easily list over 100 new species of animals I saw,” Olson said. “I learned more than I ever thought possible in such a short amount of time.”

Travis Jones, an applied science major from Chippewa Falls, returned with a deeper understanding of how the rainforest and coral reef ecosystems function and with a much greater appreciation for biodiversity.

“On one of the first days in Belize, (we saw an) array of different plants that could be used to cure different medical symptoms (sore throat, headache, fever, etc.). I found it eye-opening that there where so many varieties to choose from,” Jones said.

Olson learned how “each and every species has a role in the ecosystem, and an invaluable one at that. Just looking at the ocean, the reefs couldn’t function without the coral and their ability to house algae, which is the basis of life down there. Algae is needed in order for the food chain to function.”

The 10-day trip was divided between three sites. First, the class went to Possum Point Biology Station in southern Belize. They saw several forests — lowland, coastal mangrove, tropical montane and bamboo — and visited Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve.

The next three days were spent at Wee Wee Caye Marine Station, a roughly one-acre island two miles offshore. From there they went to the barrier reef — second largest in the world — another several miles into the ocean and snorkeled.

The last three days were spent near the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, a national park and rainforest in Guatemala. They saw many more species of plants and animals, such as rare monkeys, and learned about the culture and foods through interaction with native guides and villagers while staying at an eco-lodge.

What happens in Belize affects biodiversity in west-central Wisconsin because many species of birds migrate to Belize and Guatemala in winter, Bessert said. “Conservation affects not only what’s there but here.

“Belizians are very in tune with sustainability. It’s a developing country, but they place a high value on sustainable development and do a very good job of conserving some of the biodiversity hot spots — large tracts of pristine rainforest and the barrier reef,” Bessert said.

UW-Stout students must take a specified numbers of credits that meet global perspective and natural sciences general education requirements. Natural History of the Neotropics qualifies in both areas.

Bessert studied in Belize twice previously about 20 years ago, as an undergraduate and graduate student. “Those were career-altering experiences for me. We went to the same field stations as when I was an undergraduate. They know me when I come to visit,” he said.
Belize is an English-speaking nation and one of the safest countries in Central America, he said.

As part of the course, Bessert required each student to document 50 tropical species of birds, plants or animals. At first they thought it was a tough assignment. Bessert knew otherwise. “They got that in the first day,” he said.

A small, individual research project was one of the course requirements. In addition to the 10-day trip, students also completed 10 online lessons prior to departure.

“It couldn’t have gone better. It’s precisely the type of learning experience I had hoped for,” said Bessert, citing student journal entries that represented a “diversity of learning points.”

Olson seconded those thoughts. “It was an adventure, and one of the best times of my life. I loved the fact that we were off the beaten path, and got to get down and dirty. I hardly found time to relax. We got to experience life how the natives did and saw a lot of Belize’s natural beauty in the process.”

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