Put tropical paradise in perspective. Spend a semester in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro, where you will experience everything from underwater ecosystems to rich green rainforests. Go behind the scenes of this “paradise” as you study the impacts of tourism and development on the unique habitats of this island system. Evaluate local and national environmental policies and study the principles of sustainability and conservation as part of an in-depth field research project.
Snorkel in the waters of the archipelago to explore coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds as you study sea stars, turtles, rays, dolphins, and schools of tropical fish
Visit the Pacific coast and the mountains of Boquete: Explore the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park, take a canopy walk through cloud forest, and tour a sustainable coffee farm
Spend a day in Ngäbe communities: Speak with local Indigenous leaders, visit a women’s co-op, and take a forest walk with a local guide
All students are welcome to apply for our need-based financial aid. Students who exhibit financial need for their program will be offered SFS financial aid. SFS aid is offered through a combination of scholarships, grants and loans.
Pell Grant Match
SFS matches Federal Pell Grant funding for students applying to an SFS semester program.
Many SFS students receive aid through their home institutions or other outside sources, so check with your financial aid office to see what aid may apply to an SFS program.
Itinerary varies from term to term and is subject to change. Program activities take place 6 days a week with one day free.
Week 1: ¡Bienvenidos a Panamá! Arrive in Panama City and spend two days learning about the history of Panama. Visit the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo historic district. Fly to the SFS Center in Bocas del Toro. Move into dorms, meet roommates, and attend program orientation. Tour Bocas Town and attend lectures on rainforest dynamics, marine ecology, and tourism governance. First rainforest hike, snorkel, and species ID exercise. Salsa and music class.
Week 2: Begin Spanish classes. Lectures on mangrove ecology, plant diversity, and marine taxonomy. Rainforest sampling field exercise and snorkel at Solarte Island for fish ID and behavior exercise. Discussions on tourism and sustainable development. Community youth swim club at the Center and cultural round-robin with local Bocatoreños.
Week 3: Spend time in Ngöbe Indigenous communities learning about land rights and their approaches to conservation. Explore seagrass beds and mangroves and conduct a seagrass and algae survey. Plant ID workshop and lectures on invertebrate taxonomy and conducting transects. Continue Spanish classes. Free weekend for independent exploration on Isla Colón.
Week 4: Visit several snorkel sites: Conduct marine surveys and learn about coral reefs. Visit Hospital Point for epiphyte forest walk. Lecture on ecological impacts of tourism. Finish Spanish classes. Community activity with local Indigenous tourism providers. Begin culture and language video project.
Week 5: Lectures and snorkel activities on coral reefs – global and local threats, coral ID quiz, and coral health assessment at Isla Zapatillas. Conduct a sea star survey. Night hike. Lectures and field exercises on bromeliads, insects, and island biogeography. Optional birding activity. Panamanian cooking class. Culture and language journals.
Week 6: Guest lecture on sea turtle ecology and conservation. Lectures on climate change, invasive species, artificial coral reefs, fisheries, and ecotourism. Lionfish dissection exercise. Youth swim club at the Center and environmental education at local school. Midterm exams.
Week 7: Mid-semester break – 5 days of independent student travel. Return for lectures on marine protected areas, natural resource management, and qualitative data gathering. Community volleyball game. Intro to Directed Research (DR) topics.
Week 8: Field trips to eco-lodges and large-scale tourism developments. Data collection group project. Lectures on marine mammals, ecosystem services, and plastics in the ocean. Full day field trip to Changuinola on the mainland: visit a banana plantation and learn about agro-tourism. Community birding and youth environmental education activity. Traditional Panamanian beadwork project.
Week 9: Learn about dolphin ecology and observe interactions between tourist boats and dolphins in Dolphin Bay. Lectures on food security and the future of forests, soil and water resource management, and climate change. Final exams for Tropical Coastal Ecology, Principles of Resource Management, and Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values. Culture and language video project viewing.
Week 10: Multi-day expedition to the Pacific coast and Chiriquí highlands of Panama: snorkel in the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park and spend the day at Isla Bolaños, exploring the rocky intertidal zone and dry forest. Take a canopy tour through a cloud forest, visit Finca Dos Jefes, an organic coffee farm, and learn about honey production.
Week 11: Write DR proposals. Lectures on effective communication and ethics in research. Prep for field work. DR data collection begins.
Week 12: Data collection continues. Workshop on how to write and present a scientific poster. Second weekend away on the island.
Week 13: Data collection continues. Data analysis: organize, analyze, and write up your results in a scientific paper.
Week 14: Final papers due. Create a DR presentation and poster based on your research findings. Present DR video to students, staff, and community members.
Week 15: Re-entry exercises and room cleanup. Closing activities. Head home.
This academically rigorous program follows a six-day/week schedule. 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
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 Language, Culture, and Society of Panama (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 sociocultural 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.
SFS 3020 Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values - Panama (4 credits)
This course provides a critical look at the livelihood strategies of island residents, the land use and environmental regulations in place, and actual or recommended responses by society (including government, civil society, and individuals) aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment. Students gain an understanding of the local perceptions of conservation of natural resources and the pressure points between development and preservation. Students measure and examine the economic importance of tourism along with the habitat degradation due to tourism. Gauging environmental awareness and literacy of tourists helps students to understand their impact on the future of endangered island ecosystems that will be put under continuous pressure with the climbing number of visitors.
SFS 3740 Principles of Resource Management - Panama (4 credits)
This course examines terrestrial ecology and land-management principles and practices including timber and non-timber forest products. Students examine land use and land cover change—especially in regard to increasing pastureland and plantation land under cultivation (mostly banana) in close proximity to the ocean and important watershed habitats. Students also investigate how climate change is affecting natural resources and livelihoods on land, sea, and in forests.
This course introduces students to the ecology of coastal and marine ecosystems. Students learn to identify the major groups of dominant species in these habitats and understand the complexity of ecosystem functions in a delicate island-based marine context. The concept of island biogeography helps to frame the examination of the status of tropical island systems, especially those prone to perturbations related to climate change. Students conduct field exercises in many coastal habitats including reefs, mangroves, intertidal zones, grass beds, and estuaries.
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.
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.
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 and cloud forests in the Chiriquí Highlands, 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.
In the Directed Research course, each student completes a field research project under the mentorship of a faculty member – beginning with data collection and analysis and concluding with a research paper and presentation. Project subject areas span ecology, natural resource management, conservation science, environmental ethics, and socioeconomics.
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 on the icons below to learn more about our Center in Panama.