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Tropical Adventures – Panama 2012!

by Doug Fraser

The greatest joy I get out of teaching is witnessing the sheer delight on a student’s face when they experience a thrilling learning “moment.”  These moments can happen anywhere – in a classroom setting when a student looks through a microscope or well beyond the classroom – perhaps looking out over the canopy of a tropical rainforest!

Over the last number of years I have organized high school student trips to explore the beautiful diversity of life found in tropical rainforests and coral reefs. While a primary goal of these trips has been to study biodiversity, these trips have also immersed students in diverse and educationally rich geographic and cultural settings. I have taken groups to Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Peru and the Galapagos islands.

My most recent trip was to the remarkable country of Panama. In addition to Panama’s impressive canal, the country’s attractions include: vast rainforests; extensive coral reefs; and rich cultural diversity – including indigenous peoples still living in relative autonomy.

Our first morning, we awoke to the sounds of parrots and toucans and then headed out on a rainforest walk. As a biology teacher the thrill of walking through a rainforest with your students is hard to beat! Within 15 minutes we had spotted our first three-toed sloth and a troop of howler monkeys.

Over the next twelve days we viewed countless species of plants and animals. The rainforests were home to white-faced capuchin monkeys, red-eyed tree frogs, leaf-cutter ants, macaws, massive kapok trees and countless other species. The reefs supported a myriad of colourful fishes, squid, brain and fan corals, anemones and much more. The diversity was truly astounding. Students also heard compelling accounts of actions being taken to protect Panamas biodiversity.

In addition to the amazing biology lessons, trips to foreign countries afford students a valuable opportunity to learn about other cultures and reflect on their own place in the world. For many students the highlight of the trip is the cultural interaction.  On this particular trip we were afforded the rare opportunity to visit and stay in an indigenous Embera village. These rainforest dwelling people greeted us with open arms. For three days we interacted with the Embera: seeing how they lived; visiting their school; playing games (they thumped us at soccer!); singing and dancing; and even getting traditional Embera body tattoos.

These trips are life-changing experiences. Students gain both confidence and perspective. They see themselves re-minted as world travelers, ambassadors, and explorers. Students that have gone on such trips often change their education, career, and life goals. They become less interested (and less satisfied) by the mundane and more interested in unique experiences. They seek out novel opportunities and often begin planning their next trip.

As a trip leader one has the good fortune of witnessing how significant and positive an impact these experiences can have on young people’s lives.

If you are interested in learning more about these learning opportunities please feel free to contact me and let your adventure begin!


What incredible teachable moments have you experienced?


Douglas Fraser

Doug is a science textbook author and recently retired high school biology teacher. Doug was the Head of Science at Timiskaming District Secondary School, in New Liskeard, Ontario, where he taught with enthusiasm and passion for over 25 years. Doug has co-authored a number of high school science and biology textbooks for Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia with Nelson Education.

 Doug has travelled to the tropics on numerous occasions and has organized and supervised student and adult trips through Costa Rica, Belize, Panama, the Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands. In the spring of 2008, Doug was among a select group of Canadians invited to join The Climate Reality Project – Canada and to participate in training sessions lead by Nobel Prize winner Mr. Al Gore.

 Doug is also a regular speaker at the Science Teachers Association of Ontario’s (STAO’s) annual conference having spoken on a wide range of topics from evolution and genetics, to computer modeling of macromolecules and pseudoscience.

 Doug was the recipient of a 2007 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the NABT and received the 2009 Premier’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Teaching Excellence.


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  • Janet Lee

    When teachers arrange trips (of any kind) with students a spark can ignite as early interest and passion for a subject. I have no doubt this trip was life changing for your students. Thank you for this post.