A 35-ton homework assignment

Hungry for hands-on learning abroad, students track whales and work with native people

Caitie Dwyer-Hupper scans the calm surface for telltale spouts of the Pacific gray whale. Unfortunately, she's picked the wrong side of the boat to sit on.

"They're all over there," she says, pointing to a cloud of whale breath surfacing in the tranquil waters of Bahia Magdalena, a protected estuary on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula.

"Oh well. I'll count them on the way back," says Ms. Dwyer-Hupper, a biology major at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is tracking whales in Mexico - and getting academic credit for it.

More students are catching this wave as they contemplate studying abroad.

Rather than being cooped up inside, reading books or sipping cappuccino, they are searching for real-life experiences. Environmental tasks - from helping regulators create a fishery management plan to teaching schoolchildren about the value of sea turtles - often fit the bill for students who don't want a traditional on-campus curriculum.

"I'm a biology major, but I want to work with people ... to solve problems," says Dwyer-Hupper.

She and 24 other college students from the United States are spending a three-month semester in southern Baja at the Center for Coastal Studies, a research facility and accredited academic center run by the Beverly, Mass.-based School for Field Studies (www.fieldstudies.org). The year-round center - which offers fall, spring, and two summer sessions - gives students hands-on opportunities using the ecological resources of Bahia Magdalena and surrounding fishing villages.

The School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., (www.sit.edu) and the Organization for Tropical Studies (www.ots.duke.edu) based in Costa Rica and affiliated with Duke University also offer students real-world experiences in developing nations. Tuition is expensive, about the same as a private university, plus additional travel expenses to reach the locations.

Despite the cost, these programs give students a richer experience than the standard semester-abroad curriculum, according to Richard Primack, professor of environmental studies at Boston University, who visited the Baja site two years ago.

"In most teaching universities, coursework is fairly theoretical," Mr. Primack says. "It involves reading books and articles, and writing papers based on library research. This represents a chance to see how ideas are working on the ground. It's a complete contrast to a learn-by-reading or learn-by-talking model; it's a learn-by-doing model."

As ecotourism across the globe grows along with the number of parks, museums, zoos, camps, and protected areas, recent college graduates with related skills are finding a more friendly job market, according to Eileen Andrews, president of the North American Association for Environmental Education, based in Washington.

Ms. Andrews points out that students should be aware of risks in foreign travel and prepare for them. For instance, she says, occasionally illness is attributed to climate or exposure to plants and animals.

"Americans get cavalier about travel, and we take safety issues for granted," says Andrews, who traveled from Wisconsin to Florida to study spiders and limestone caverns as an undergraduate in the late 1960s. "It's important that parents and students ... make a decision about whether they are comfortable with those risks."

Andrews says students and parents must keep in mind that "it's not a vacation" as they prepare to leave the home campus.

At the Baja center, students are given several hours of safety lectures when they arrive and are equipped with life vests in the boat. The biggest risk today may be too much sun, something that New England college students don't complain about in early February.

After a day of whale-counting, though, Kevin Wong says he didn't anticipate the cool evenings where the Baja desert meets the ocean. "I'm going to freeze," says Mr. Wong, a student from Hawaii who came for the semester because he wants to do something practical with his environmental studies major. "I didn't bring enough warm clothes."

During the program, students break into smaller teams to study whales, sea turtles, and the human impact on the fishing industry.

The 7,700-square-mile Bahia Magdalena is an important feeding ground and nursery area for turtles, including East Pacific greens, loggerheads, olive ridleys, and the rare hawksbill. Over 100 species of birds call it home for at least part of the year.

And then there are the gray whales that Dwyer-Hupper and her eight classmates are tracking. The whales visit the area from December through April to give birth. The students observe them from a dory-shaped fishing boat, or panga, piloted by Rodrigo Rangel Aceredo, a local fisherman now working for the school.

In recent years, students' studies of the gray whale population led to an increase in permits for local ecotourism outfitters, and provided information on how the industry can be managed to protect the whales.

In a collaborative study with the Mexican government and local fishermen, students and faculty developed an alternative type of shrimp net to reduce by-catch of sea turtles and protect the fragile ocean bottom.

While in Mexico, students share four-person, solar-powered cabins with palm-thatched roofs. The site also has a computer room, library, classroom, lab, kitchen, dining and study areas, and a bath/shower house a few hundred feet from a sandy beach. Faculty and staff live in small homes in the same compound.

Center director Carlos De Alba Perez involves the students in community-improvement projects such as cleaning beaches, visiting schools, and teaching English to adults who want to work in the town's growing tourism business.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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