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Cross Cultural Environmental Education

Biohabitats Sr. Environmental Scientist and college lecturer Dr. Peter May reveals the ultimate lesson learned by students studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro.

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Biohabitats Senior Environmental Scientist and University of Maryland lecturer Dr. Peter May recently led undergraduate and graduate students in a Study Abroad course in Ecology and Natural Resource Management in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During the trip, students learned about the work of university scientists and resource managers in the city and state of Rio de Janeiro. They also learned what inspiration really feels like.

As a graduate student, I visited Brazil and conducted some tropical stream research in the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest and in the Amazon with my graduate advisor. This summer, 18 years later, I returned — this time as a teacher leading a class in Ecology and Natural Resource Management in Rio de Janeiro.

For more than two decades, the University of Maryland has exchanged students with universities in the State of Rio in alternating years.

This relationship was borne out of a 50-year-old program called Partners of the Americas, which aimed to foster people-to-people relationships between states in the U.S. and South America. Maryland and Rio de Janeiro were matched due to their common coastal nature, defining estuaries, and proximity to their respective national capitals.

Some would say Maryland got lucky. Given the level of interest and commitment from the Brazilian students and professors, I’d say they feel equally fortunate.

As we traveled through the State of Rio, the students learned about Atlantic Coastal Rain Forest protection and restoration, efforts to conserve the endangered golden lion tamarin, advances in progressive agricultural practices, and coastal and estuarine conservation and restoration.

Throughout the course, students interacted with Brazilian students, professors and resource managers.

Some of my students had never left the U.S., and they experienced somewhat of a culture shock. The food…the language…everything was quite different from what they were used to. One thing that was familiar and common to all of them, and immediately connected them to their Brazilian counterparts, was an incredible interest and passion for the natural world they were experiencing.

So what from this journey stood out the most to my students?

It wasn’t the boat ride with the dolphin researcher and the hundreds of dolphins we encountered in a research area. Nor was it the venom antidote institute, which displayed some of the most deadly snakes and invertebrates in the world.

The lectures by local professors on agroecology, Amazonian dam hydromodeling, aquatic biology of coastal bays and bromeliad/invertebrate ecology? Interesting, but…still lectures.Rio’s cultural sites, natural beauty, samba soundtrack and graphiti masterpieces were stimulating.

The botanic gardens, the beaches, natural forests, and 17th Century colonial Portuguese port town whose streets were inundated by the tide daily, by design, were fun to visit. It was thrilling to track by radiotelemetry and interact with a family of the rare and endangered Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys, but this was not the highlight of the trip. What was?

The most fascinating, compelling thing my students experienced during this trip was a liberating, exhilarating feeling of wonder — of the world’s complexities and similarities, and the ways in which we humans live and interact with nature, and each other. This feeling ignited in the students a passion to do better by this world, other people, and themselves.

And as much as I travel, I find that every time I visit a new culture, a new place, new ecosystems really, this same feeling is as fresh and inspiring to me as it was to my students in Brazil. The world around us is big and small at the same time, but to experience another piece of it somehow makes you want to do better by it, and to do better by yourself in this short life. How do I know this about my students?  They were required to keep a journal and submit it as part of their grade. The same as I did almost 25 years ago on my first trip abroad as an adult to visit new ecosystems in Belize. I felt the same as those students then, and I still feel it now. You don’t have to be fortunate enough to travel abroad to have that feeling. I believe you can feel it anywhere if you have the wisdom to see and explore beyond our day to day lives. But it helps to remind yourself of how big and complex and beautiful our biosphere is, and how big our responsibility is to it and all of its inhabitants.

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