Panama

Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

Panama

Lush rainforests, hundreds of mangrove islands, and coral reefs teeming with diverse marine life, the Bocas del Toro archipelago is a vibrant living laboratory for studying tropical biodiversity. This island chain is populated by everything from hummingbirds and howler monkeys to stingrays, dolphins, sloths, and brightly colored poison dart frogs.



semester

15 Weeks

|

18 Credits


Spring 2024

 Jan 30 - May 10

In The Field

Fall 2024

 Sep 1 - Dec 12

Open

Spring 2025

 Jan 30 - May 10

Open


PROGRAM COSTS

Tuition:

$20,450

Room & Board:

$4,950

Total Cost:

$25,400


Sample Itinerary


Sample Itinerary:

APPLY NOW

semester PROGRAM

Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

Bocas del Toro Archipelago


Spend a semester in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro, where everything – from the thriving underwater ecosystems to the rich green rainforests – seems more alive. Study the impacts of tourism and development on the island system’s unique habitats, evaluate local environmental policies, and apply the principles of sustainability and conservation to your research project.

  • Enjoy the Caribbean Sea as your backyard work, study, snorkel, and live at our island campus. 
  • Visit the Caribbean Coral Restoration Center to learn the methods used in creating artificial reefs; snorkel nearby artificial reefs and coral nurseries to observe restoration work firsthand. 
  • Sample medicinal plants and hand-ground cacao on visits to various chocolate farms as part of a semester-long exploration of the intricacies of contemporary and Indigenous tourism.
  • Travel extensively around the islands of Bocas del Toro – above and below the water -encountering mangroves, rainforests, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and agroforestry fincas.
  • Conduct a comprehensive field research project: Develop a research question, collect and analyze data, write a collaborative paper, and present your findings. Read more about SFS Directed Research projects.. 

Application deadlines:
Spring – November 1
Fall – May 1

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Academics

This academically rigorous program follows a six-day/week schedule. Each program combines theory learned during classroom sessions with field-based applications. The interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to help students actively discover and understand the complexities of environmental, social, and economic issues in Panama. Read more about the SFS program model. Major academic themes include:

  • Climate change impacts
  • Rainforest and marine ecology
  • Indigenous tourism and sustainability
  • Marine protected areas
  • Conservation and natural resource management
  • Ecosystem health assessments
  • Tourism impacts on ecosystems and human populations

Courses

On the Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies program, you will take three 4-credit disciplinary courses, one 2-credit language and culture course, and a 4-credit capstone Directed Research course. Courses are participatory in nature and are designed to foster inquiry and active learning. Each course combines lectures, field exercises, assignments, tests, and research. All courses are taught in English. Click on each course to view a description and download the syllabus

SFS 2070
Cultural Competence in Conservation (Language and Culture)
2 credits
SFS 3020
Environmental Governance, Development, and Conservation
4 credits
SFS 3740
Forest Ecology and Resource Management
4 credits
SFS 3790
Tropical Coastal Ecology
4 credits
SFS 4910
Directed Research
4 credits

SFS 2070 Cultural Competence in Conservation (Language and Culture) (2 credits)

This course contains two distinct but integrated modules. The Spanish language module offers listening, oral, and written practice of the Spanish language at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of proficiency. Students engage in oral and written grammar and vocabulary exercises, and develop Spanish language skills and tools required for their research projects. The Society and Culture of Panama module helps students to develop a more refined understanding of Panamanian culture and the various communities with which we work. Students participate in lectures, field exercises, and other activities—all of which teach them strategies and skills for working with people in a community-based research context and help them to assist with community extension projects.   View Syllabus

SFS 3020 Environmental Governance, Development, and Conservation (4 credits)

This course examines environmental policy and socioeconomic values through the lens of tourism development in Bocas del Toro, Panama (Bocas). After discussing environmental and social challenges historically connected with international tourism development, we will then explore the ideological thrust towards sustainable tourism, as well as critique this concept – always asking: “what are we sustaining and for whom?”

 

View Syllabus

SFS 3740 Forest Ecology and Resource Management (4 credits)

The Tropical Forest Ecology and Resource Management course in the Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS) program introduces students to concepts and tools to study and manage tropical forest ecosystems. The course covers basic principles about the factors driving biodiversity patterns, with a focus on tropical systems, explores symbiotic relationships among species within the rain forest and provides insights into the importance of neotropical forests worldwide. Thus, as part of this course we will conduct activities focused on learning about how to assess changes in biodiversity, learn about ecological processes such as forest dynamics and soil productivity, and ecosystem services.   View Syllabus

SFS 3790 Tropical Coastal Ecology (4 credits)

Tropical Coastal Ecology (TCE) is a course that provides fundamental knowledge necessary to understand the main ecological processes and interactions in a fragile marine island ecosystem. Basic ecological principles are paired with field observation and measurement to understand the interdependencies of species, populations, communities and ecosystems in the coastal and marine environment, and with particular attention to the management of resources and environments. Our studies will focus on the shallow marine and coastal environments of Bocas del Toro with an emphasis on coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats. We will study the biology, ecology and behavior of key species, including those that form habitats and those that are important resources to the people of Bocas del Toro through fisheries and tourism. Finally, we will consider the impact of anthropogenic disturbance and global climate change to the island ecosystem and organisms living there, as well as discuss possible management solutions

 

View Syllabus

SFS 4910 Directed Research (4 credits)

This course prepares students to distinguish hidden assumptions in scientific approaches and separate fact from interpretation, cause from correlation, and advocacy from objectivity. Students learn specific tools including: experimental design; field techniques; basic descriptive statistics; and parametric and non-parametric quantitative analysis. Emphasis is placed on succinct scientific writing, graphic and tabular presentation of results, and effective delivery of oral presentations.

 

View Syllabus

Core Skills

You will gain practical skills in the field such as: species identification, habitat and biodiversity assessment, experience using underwater surveying with transects and quadrats, basic Spanish language skills, wildlife population monitoring techniques, tourism impact assessment methods, research design and implementation, quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, and research presentation.

Field Sites

You will visit different ecosystems and communities which may include coral reefs, tropical rainforests, coastal forests and beaches, Indigenous Ngöbe communities, island ecosystems, the Caribbean Coral Restoration Center, Panama City and the Panama Canal, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, marine protected areas, banana farms and other agricultural operations, riverine ecosystems, and the vibrant small-town community of Bocas.

summer session I

04 Weeks

|

04 Credits


Summer 2024

 Jun 3 - Jul 2

Filling Fast


PROGRAM COSTS

Tuition:

$5,200

Room & Board:

$1,650

Total Cost:

$6,850


Sample Itinerary


Sample Itinerary:

APPLY NOW

summer session I PROGRAM

Tropical Island Ecosystems: The Human Impact

Bocas del Toro Archipelago


Study abroad in Panama and immerse yourself in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro. Snorkel and hike through the diverse environments of Bocas – from coral reefs and mangroves to beaches and rainforests – and study human impacts, such as tourism, on the island’s ecosystems and communities. Meet the local residents who depend on both tourism and natural resources and learn about current approaches to sustainable development in the archipelago.

  • Enjoy the Caribbean Sea as your backyard – work, study, snorkel, and live at our island campus. 
  • Travel extensively around the islands of Bocas del Toro – above and below the water -encountering mangroves, rainforests, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and agroforestry fincas. 
  • Explore the intricacies of contemporary tourism in Bocas del Toro – wildlife tourism, adventure tourism, Indigenous tourism, and others – and the intersections of conservation, economy, and culture. 

Application deadlines:
Summer 1 – April 1
follow sfs panama on instagram




Academics

This academically rigorous program follows a six-day/week schedule. Each program combines theory learned during classroom sessions with field-based applications. The interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to help students actively discover and understand the complexities of environmental, social, and economic issues in Panama. Read more about the SFS program model. Major academic themes include:

  • Biodiversity and ecosystem health assessments
  • Rainforest and marine ecology
  • Indigenous tourism and sustainability
  • Tourism impacts on ecosystems and human populations
  • Marine protected areas

Courses

On the Tropical Island Ecosystems: The Human Impact program, you will take one 4-credit course. This course is participatory in nature and is designed to foster inquiry and active learning combining lectures, field exercises, assignments, and tests. This course is taught in English. Click on each course to view a description and download the syllabus

SFS 3000
Tourism and Island Systems: Assessment of Sustainable Practices
4 credits

SFS 3000 Tourism and Island Systems: Assessment of Sustainable Practices (4 credits)

This course introduces students to the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of Bocas del Toro and the challenges presented by a growing reliance on tourism for economic development in this part of the Caribbean. Students evaluate the impact of tourism on the natural environment and engage with local stakeholders to determine how the tourist industry affects—positively or negatively—social, cultural, and political dynamics within the archipelago. Sustainable practice is a major lens of inquiry during this course. Students will assess the balance between the conservation of the region’s natural resources and economic opportunities for local communities.

 

View Syllabus

Core Skills

You will gain practical skills in the field such as: habitat and biodiversity assessment, underwater surveying with transects and quadrats, tourism SWOT analysis, basic Spanish language skills, interview methods, and quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis.

Field Sites

You will visit different ecosystems and communities which may include coral reefs, tropical rainforests, coastal forests and beaches, Indigenous Ngöbe communities, island ecosystems, coffee farms, the Caribbean Coral Restoration Center, Panama City and the Panama Canal, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, marine protected areas, banana farms and other agricultural operations, riverine ecosystems, and the vibrant small-town community of Bocas.

What Students Are Saying:


 
“My semester in Panama was awesome! It was so cool to have the ocean, rainforest, and archipelago as a whole as our classroom. All of the professors and staff at SFS are amazing and passionate people who truly make the program as special as it is.”
 
– Bronya, Colby College


 
“Studying with SFS was a unique experience that I couldn’t have received from any other provider. I was lucky to collaborate with beyond-amazing instructors who inspire students to get involved and be the change that we want to see. They were supportive in making space for me to speak my truth and express my passion for social and environmental justice.”
 
– Olivia, University of Wisconsin-Madison


 
“SFS provided me with an educational and personal experience that was even better than I had anticipated. I didn’t expect to leave with such a sense of accomplishment in the research we did, the impact we had on the community, and the vast amount of knowledge I gained and applied throughout the semester.”
 
– Sam, University of Massachusetts

 

Where You'll Be Living

The Center, once a hotel, lies among the slender palms and warm waters of Isla Colón. You’ll live, study, relax, and enjoy communal meals with your cohort, here. Across the street, you’ll find a beach with waterfront access for swimming and paddleboarding. The laidback hub of Bocas Town is a short taxi ride away, with access to shops, restaurants, and a vibrant culture that is as unique as the mix of people who live here.

  • Dorm living in ~4-person bunkrooms
  • Indoor/outdoor classroom and study space
  • Student lounge space
  • Casual al-fresco dining area and on-site cooking staff
  • Swimming pool, kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling
Click here to read stories from students, staff, and faculty on our blog

 
 
 

Program Costs

Study abroad is an investment in yourself – you’ll return home with new experiences, skills, knowledge, and friendships that will stay with you for the rest of your life. SFS program costs cover a variety of expenses, including:
 

  • Pre-program advising and on-site orientation
  • Tuition and research fees
  • Housing at the field station and on excursions
  • Daily meals and snacks
  • Airport transfers (for arrival/departure)
  • Field excursions and cultural activities
  • Student success and wellness team on site
  • 24/7 mental health and well-being support
  • Emergency evacuation and repatriation insurance
  • Official transcript processing

View Panama Program Costs

Financial Aid

We know cost can be one of the biggest barriers to studying abroad. At SFS, we’re committed to making our programs accessible to students which is why we award more than $650,000 in need-based financial aid each year. Our Admissions Team has worked with thousands of students and are here to answer your questions about the SFS aid process, aid available through your home school, and funding from external sources.
 
SFS Financial Aid: Need-based aid packages typically consist of a combination of scholarships, grants, and zero- and low-interest loans. SFS matches Federal Pell Grant funding for students applying to an SFS semester program.

Home School Aid: Be sure to ask your home school study abroad office or financial aid office what financial aid resources might be available to support your study abroad experience.

External Funding Opportunities: Organizations such as the Fund for Education Abroad or the Gilman International Scholarship Program award scholarships to students going abroad. These can be a great opportunity to reduce the cost of your program even more.
 
Learn More about Financial Aid

 

Research

Research at the SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies focuses on environmental conservation, tropical ecology and natural resource management approaches in the face of threats like climate change and impacts from increasing tourist activity. Students and faculty engage with Indigenous entrepreneurs, NGOs, fishers, farmers, and business owners as they explore sustainable tourism models and the future of these fragile ecosystems and the surrounding communities.
 
Our research focuses primarily on the following themes:

  • Rainforest and marine biodiversity
  • Tourism impacts
  • Ecosystem health
  • Community livelihoods and perceptions
  • Climate change impacts
  • Marine protected areas

Community

Bocas del Toro, Panama

SFS is an active part of the Bocas del Toro community, where we have been based since the early 90s.

We have built long-term, collaborative relationships in the communities around the Center, and developed our research plans based on the environmental issues they and the surrounding ecosystems face. Throughout the program, students organize a snorkel and swim club for children, work to help support local Indigenous entrepreneurs, and take part in other projects such as urban birding festivals and educational talks. Students attend area events and festivals, frequent the shops, markets, and restaurants of Bocas Town, and compete in a local volleyball match.

At the end of each semester program, we host a Community Research Night where select students will present their research findings to the community. SFS research data is shared with the community, local NGOs, and the Panamanian government.
 

Read stories about our community in Panama

Program Partners

SFS is committed to providing robust learning and research opportunities for our students. One way we do this is through in-country collaborations with a variety of organizations, community groups, and government agencies. We support our commitment to these groups by sharing our research findings and contributing to shared goals.
 
Featured Partner: Ciudad del Saber (CDS)
Just a few minutes from Panama’s city center and across from the Panama Canal, the 120 hectares and over 200 buildings of the former Clayton military base have been transformed into the City of Knowledge. Here, entrepreneurs, scientists, thinkers, artists, community leaders, as well as experts from the government, NGOs, and international organizations work together to develop initiatives that trigger social change.

City of Knowledge is an innovative community that imagines, researches, learns, teaches, experiments, invents, creates and inspires; proving that a different Panama and a different world are possible. A private, non-profit Panamanian organization is responsible for leading this project: The City of Knowledge Foundation.
 

Learn more about CDS

Meet the Panama Team

Leon Mach, Ph.D.

Associate Professor in Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values
Meet Leon

Dago Venera-Ponton, PH.D.

Professor of Tropical Coastal Ecology
Meet Dago

Sydney Rubinstein

Student Health and Wellness Manager
Meet Sydney

Holly Hummel, M.S.

Community Coordinator and Cultural Liaison
Meet Holly

Chelsea Archibold

Cleaning Technician
Meet Chelsea

Adrien Perez

Garden Technician
Meet Adrien

Isidro Francis

Head of Security
Meet Isidro

Daniel Medina, Ph.D.

Resident Lecturer in Tropical Forest Ecology and Resource Management
Meet Daniel
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