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Biology classes to explore Central American ecosystems

Biology in Costa Rica
Dr. Nancy Dalman, head of UNG's Department of Biology, hoists a sea cucumber above the water while diving in Belize during an exploratory trip to assess the location for a possible biology course.

In what will be the first study abroad opportunity for biology students at University of North Georgia (UNG), two groups will head separately to Belize and Costa Rica next summer to study the native flora and fauna.

The program in Costa Rica will also be open to trustees of the UNG Foundation Inc. and UNG alumni. They will experience the same course as students but will also have access to other activities.

"Trustees and alumni going to Costa Rica will have the opportunity to see firsthand the impact the trip has on our students, plus $500 of their total trip expense will be used to cover a portion of the students' expenses," said Dr. Mike Bodri, dean of UNG's College of Science & Mathematics. "The entire group will be staying at the University of Georgia field station, which is not far off the beaten path and also has great access to a cloud forest reserve."

The ecology of cloud forests, which are highland forests with 100 percent humidity along with frequent mist and cloud cover, will be the subject of the course in Costa Rica. The course will be taught by Dr. Janice Crook-Hill, assistant professor of biology specializing in birds; Dr. Erin Barding, assistant professor of biology specializing in mammals; and Dr. Mark Davis, professor of biology specializing in reptiles.

"This region is completely different from ours, biologically speaking," Crook-Hill said. "The elevation is similar — about 1,400 meters — but everything else will be a unique experience for our students. It's also worth noting that cloud forests are quite different from rainforests."

Cloud forests are typically cooler than rainforests with different vegetation and animals. Dr. Carly Womack-Wynne, associate director of UNG's Center for Global Engagement, said the students will be living and studying in a top-notch facility.

"The community containing the facility has tremendously benefitted from its presence due in part to the station's dedication to sustainable practices. Our students will also be learning and experiencing these methods, and will be helping to preserve the environments they are studying," Womack-Wynne said. "We at the CGE are very excited to engage the College of Science & Mathematics for the first time; the support and enthusiasm from Dean Bodri and the college's faculty are terrific assets in helping us achieve our mission to provide international and cross-cultural experiences for students of all majors."

In Belize, Dr. Nancy Dalman, head of the Department of Biology, and Jill Schulze, assistant dean of the College of Science & Mathematics, will be teaching a course on tropical reef ecology. Dalman said that the trip to Kalibash Caye will offer much to students besides the scholarly applications.

"Studying in these locations will offer several advantages to our students, most notably the chance to study unique habitats and ecosystems outside of the classroom," Dalman said. "But it will also integrate them into a new world where they will witness an entirely different way of life, including the focus on sustainable practices. It's important to me that our students have the same opportunities I did, such as expanding their horizons and experiencing different cultures while studying abroad."

UNG student Jessica Murray, who is graduating this fall, will be interning at the Costa Rica research station as a resident naturalist for at least six months, beginning in April 2015.

"I will be working mostly with students studying abroad or tourists staying as guests, focusing primarily on facilitating hikes and workshops," Murray said. "I am tasked with learning as much as possible about Costa Rican cloud forest ecology and sharing my educational journey with our visitors. I will serve to ensure that students, researchers, and tourists have a wonderful, inspiring, educational experience during their visit. I am ecstatic about this opportunity to improve my Spanish and be immersed in a new culture and ecosystem, and am thankful for the incredible support of Drs. Dalman and Bodri, and all of our amazing biology professors."

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