Through the Penn State Lehigh Valley CHANCE Program, undergraduate students from across the state help restore native sea turtle populations, dwindling globally as a result of coastal development, climate change, and more.
Panama's San San Beach, with its clear water and blue skies, looks like a Caribbean paradise. But underneath its natural beauty is a delicate ecosystem strained by a changing environment. The sea turtles native to this area are currently in danger of extinction.
Through the CHANCE (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences) Program, more than twenty Penn Staters participated in sea turtle conservation and research activities alongside members of WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network), a group active in sea turtle conservation all over the world.
The CHANCE Program—led by Associate Professor Jacqueline McLaughlin, who teaches biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley—provides students with an immersive experience that brings the biology they've learned in textbooks into real life. "CHANCE is an outreach program that allows Penn State undergraduate and graduate students to explore, research, and conserve the biodiversity of our world," said McLaughlin.
Conservation and Research
Sea turtles spend most of their time in water, where they find the main staples of their diets. But females lay their eggs in sandy nests along the shoreline. Often, females will travel long distances to return to the very area where they were hatched to lay their own eggs.
"We can no longer teach conservation biology with a textbook. We need to immerse our students in conservation biology." —Jacqueline McLaughlin
"Sometimes, if the females can't find the place where they hatched, they just won't lay their eggs. That's why pollution and coastal development are such big issues," explained Science major Emily Parchuke. In clearing the beach of trash and other debris, students helped make sure that the females could make the journey to their nests unhindered.
Students also helped to collect data on both the turtles and the hatchlings, tagging them for identification purposes and taking measurements like width, height, weight, location, and number of eggs.
"To know that all the data we're collecting is going to go into a longitudinal study that helps us understand the population dynamics of sea turtles is really important to me and everyone we're working with," said Taylor Rundatz, a Biology student.
Learning by Experience
"I used to think of biology as textbook work, a lot of memorization," said Biotechnology major Karen Rivera. "But seeing the world right now through this experience, biology is life; it's all around us."
McLaughlin's CHANCE Program operates based on the belief that scientific concepts are more engaging and better understood when you can see them applied in the real world. It gives students a unique opportunity to be both fully immersed in research efforts and actively making a difference, all while exploring the environment of a foreign country.
"I used to think of biology as textbook work, a lot of memorization. But seeing the world right now through this experience, biology is life; it's all around us." —Karen Rivera, Biotechnology
"We can no longer teach conservation biology with a textbook. We need to immerse our students in conservation biology," said McLaughlin.
Not only does the program offer an opportunity to visit a very different part of the world, it does so with the goal of bringing biology to life. Over the course of their two-week stay in South America, CHANCE participants also had the opportunity to study the bird population in a protected area of rainforest in Costa Rica, go white-water rafting on the Sarapiqui River, hike through Cahuita National Park, snorkel through the Bocas del Toro coral reefs, and more.
"I feel like I can do anything after this." —Zach Root, Marketing
"I realized that learning is not just in a book, but learning comes from experience. And the experience that we've had on this trip has given me so much knowledge," said Marketing student Zach Root. "I feel like I can do anything after this."