It's not unusual for students to travel during a school break. But it is rare to mingle among blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and other exotic creatures while earning biology course credits. For nine UMass Dartmouth undergraduates, a 10-day, January expedition to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands proved to be the experience of a lifetime.
"I had a great group of UMass Dartmouth students fully committed to experiencing naturalism and evolution in the greatest natural laboratory our planet has," said Biology Professor Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C., who organized the trip in partnership with the Office of International and Exchange Study Programs.
Paz-y-Miño C. explained that the unique natural history of the Galápagos Islands makes them ideal scenarios for learning biology, biogeography, environmental sciences, human ecology and the history of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin's visit to the Galápagos in 1835 was crucial for the development of the theory of evolution.
The group, which included Susan Atkins, International & Exchange Study Program director, visited Quito, the capital of Ecuador, exploring its colonial downtown, churches including San Agustín, La Compañía de Jesús, and San Francisco, the main plaza of Independence, and Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, or the "middle of the world city," before navigating around Santa Cruz, Española, Isabela, Fernandina and Baltra Islands.
There, the students completed 70 hours of intense academic work including independent projects that culminated in oral presentations and papers. Participants also attended environmental interpretations by scholars from the Charles Darwin Field Station, the Galápagos National Park, the Galápagos Foundation and the Ecuadorian National Observatory and wrote journals documenting their reflections.
"My outlook on biology has totally been transformed," said Larissa Basque, a freshman marine biology m ajor from Plainville. "There is an abundance of life of animals so exotic and unique to the islands, it has opened my eyes to new understandings and realization of how diverse this world is."
"All of the books you may read and all of the pictures you may see are nothing compared to the actual experience of visiting the islands. You will never see anything more beautiful in your life," said Kayla Braunston, a freshman biology major from Gloucester.
Atkins noted that the participants had varying degrees of science background and that she found it rewarding to watch the students learn and embrace their new surroundings. "There was a sense of adventure and now their perceptions of culture and views of this amazing part of the world have changed," she said. "The experience was valuable for students because for those pursuing environmental sciences or marine biology, this was an opportunity to see first hand what being a naturalist is like. This (trip) wa s a path to explore their future careers, a way to translate their academic focus into reality."
For non-biology majors, the trip was equally worthwhile.
Bartholomew Walsh, a junior philosophy major from Charlton said, "The expedition allowed me to study a unique and beautiful place firsthand, gave me a newfound appreciation for science as methodological naturalism and also, more importantly, left me with a better understanding of evolutionary theory. In the Galápagos, evolution occurs right before your eyes, giving you a rare glimpse into the underlying process of the cosmos at work."
"It's a place unlike any other on this planet with unique and fascinating creatures," said Kaitlin Switzer, a freshman fine arts-painting/2D major from North Kingstown, Rhode Island. "You witness firsthand natural phenomena in its most raw form. As this life-changing journey unfolds, nature's processes reveal themselves, opening your eyes to profound truths."
The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic origin distributed around the equator, 600 miles west of continental Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. They are comprised of 13 large islands, six small islands and 40 islets and have World Heritage National Park status.
Paz-y-Miño C., recipient of a Commonwealth of Massachusetts award for his contribution to innovation in science education, has run similar expeditions in the past. He brought this initiative to UMass Dartmouth for the first time and its success has him thinking about future expeditions and other activities related to the Galápagos.
To view photos of the trip, go to www.enewsrelease.com/pressroom
and enter release id 131627.