GUANICA, Puerto Rico (Oct. 2, 2019)—A unique educational program led by the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is helping students home in on a specific scientific field by exposing them to a broad array of experiences in the environmental and ecological sciences.
Yamil Toro, field operations manager for the NEON’s scientific field sites in Puerto Rico, said a student might be studying to be an agronomist, but unless they are exposed to field experiences studying flora, fauna, aquatics, laboratory management, or entomology, they might not know that they have an interest in those fields, or that career opportunities are available.
That’s what three different internship programs he guides each year are intended to do. “It really opens up their vision not only to what they like to study but it also reinforces the concept that these are all intertwined in the larger ecosystem,” Toro said.
The NEON program, managed by Battelle, is a continental-scale ecological observation facility that collects and provides open data from 81 field sites across the United States that characterize and quantify how our nation's ecosystems are changing. The data will contribute to a better understanding and more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecosystems and how society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues. The data is available for anyone to use. Learn more at neonscience.org.
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There are three main complementary internship programs. One is with the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez called the STARTNOW project.
STARTNOW or Student Training in Agricultural Research Techniques by Novel Occupational Workshop is a United States Department of Agriculture National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) competitively funded program for Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI). Other collaborative institutions include Texas A&M University Kingsville (TAMUK) as lead, University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez (UPRM), Florida International University (FIU), and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). This grant specifically targets the education of undergraduate and graduate students of Hispanic background at four-year universities to equip them with the knowledge base and expertise needed to lead and succeed in the continuously evolving agricultural field. The students carry out six- and eight-week professional or research internships in USDA or similar government labs and research laboratories, respectively. The field sites in Puerto Rico are part of NEON’s Atlantic Neotropical ecoclimatic domain and the field staff there host one intern every summer.
Students are exposed to several scientific data collection systems (terrestrial observational sampling, aquatic observational sampling, and automated instrumentation). During a six-week period, the students rotate within the different subsystems in order to learn the theory and practice of data collection and to obtain hands-on experiences. This pragmatic exercise helps students to have a broader view on the ecological field of study and helps them to identify areas that they may never have thought would interest them.
Dr. David Sotomayor is a Professor of Soil Science and STARTNOW principal investigator from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, College of Agricultural Sciences-Mayagüez Campus. He said, “The comments received from our interns have been very positive. The learning experience that they have had at NEON has been enriching for them. They have really gained a new perspective of science and what fields they would pursue in the future as professional careers.”
A second program is with Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios (CEM) in Mayagüez.
The Veterinary Technician degree requires that the student have experience, integrate knowledge and skills to be applied in real situations. The learning experience requires students to be supervised at all times by a professional who will serve as a mentor and counselor to the student. The course consists of 405 hours of practice, of which 160 are performed at the NEON facilities.
Due to the nature of this degree, the student experience is focused on fauna-oriented field sampling protocols such as ground beetle sampling, mosquito sampling and tick/tick-borne pathogen sampling. The experience includes a field component, as well as the experience of working in a lab environment following all the safety rules.
“The opportunity to work in the NEON program gave students additional experience that can be directly applied to their degree, enriched their education process and helped them nurture their professional career,” said Professor Claribel Velázquez Nieves, a Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios coordinator.
A third internship program, which wrapped up late last year, is called the Lajas Valley Watershed Project.
The Lajas Valley Watershed Project Workshop was a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency externally funded project with the College of Agricultural Sciences, University of Puerto Rico. The participants were high school and college students who participated as separate groups. The groups discussed and were exposed to topics related to watershed management, water quality, sources of pollution, and community organization, using the Lajas Valley basin as a study site. Conferences, workshops, and field trips to NEON’s terrestrial field site co-located at the Lajas Experimental Station were offered through professionals and professional organizations.
The workshops were focused on providing environmental science education, under an experiential-based learning format. This format allows individuals to explore environmental issues, solve problems in a participatory manner and take action to improve the environment. The program teaches that environmental education is much more than information about the environment. The goal is to teach individuals to weigh various points of view regarding the issues through critical thinking to improve decision-making skills.
Toro said NEON field science staff served as facilitators in the environmental education process, exposing students to data collection through NEON sampling protocols. The participants visited one site that includes a sensor-laden micrometeorology tower along with other terrestrial research instruments, and an aquatic site. The students were taught that the ecosystems are more complex than they might appear and to recognize that the decision-making process must include adequate and relevant information because any decision made without adequate information can have harmful consequences for the environment.
Dr. David Sotomayor, Professor of Soil Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences-Mayagüez Campus, said, “The interaction with NEON staff and the NEON infrastructure gave the students a broader perspective on environmental education and how important and complicated it can be. The experience showed the participants in a pragmatic way the importance of collecting data and the impact that the information has in the decision-making process when dealing with environmental issues.”
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