Two dozen ORT students returned to their home countries after an extraordinary experience at World ORT’s fifth annual Ecology Summer School in Panama.
These promising high school students were nominated by their schools across Latin America (and Spain) several months ago and passed a rigorous selection process to secure a place on this prestigious ORT program.
Arriving in Panama City on 2nd February, the students were taken to Gamboa, a small town on the fringes of the rainforest, which became their home for the next 12 days.
The Ecology Summer School is a Spanish-language program that aims to give ORT students a deeper understanding of the natural environment and the importance of conservation through scientific research projects, site visits and meetings with leading academics and conservationists.
With guidance from researchers from the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute, also in Gamboa, the ORT students were introduced to the biology of the rainforest and identified topics that they could investigate further through research projects.
Erik, aged 17, from Colegio Israelita de México ORT (CIM-ORT) in Mexico City, was part of a team that were fascinated by the Anolis oxylophus lizards, one of the only lizards that can store oxygen for long, underwater dives.
He said: “We expected that these lizards would need to live close to a water source, but actually we discovered that other factors such as light and availability of plants for shelter were more important factors.
“At this Ecology Summer School, I’ve learned to do a complete investigation, write a clear research paper and explore the rainforest with knowledge of what to find there. I also learned a lot about Panama’s history and made wonderful friends.”
Camilla, 15, from ORT Argentina, was studying the Azteca ants, and was curious to explore whether their waste had potential to be used as a fertilizer for agriculture.
“We are surprised to find so many colonies of these ants and noticed that they secreted a discharge that seemed to boost the growth of the plants where they lived. We couldn’t remove the waste for analysis, so we decided to compare the growth of plants with Azteca colonies and those without.”
Chelina Batista, one of the Summer School’s academic advisors, is a researcher at the Smithsonian and consultant for several non-profit conservation organizations.
She said: “The students have really learned a lot through their projects. Their oral presentations and the Q&A allowed them to show a very deep understanding of the species they studied. But just as importantly, I think we’ve given them the tools to communicate what they know in the language used by researchers.
“They started with curiosity, making observations and following them up, but they’ve now learned how to describe the whole process with clarity, to a high standard. They’ve really grown a lot academically during this summer school.”
For Tu B’Shvat (Jewish holiday celebrating the new year of trees), the students had a guided learning hike through the Altos de Campana national park, some 75km south of Gamboa. At this altitude the clouds provide moisture, which permits a huge range of plant life, and its isolation has led to speciation – the evolution of species not found anywhere else.
Students were particularly excited when Makario González-Pinzón, one of the guides – an amphibian specialist – found a tiny (1.5cm) pygmy rain frog. The hike was hard work but provided spectacular views at the end and a unique learning experience with relevance for the festival.
Another day, the group travelled by boat to San Antonio village, belonging to Embera indigenous people. After being welcomed with some traditional music and dancing, they were given a presentation about their culture and way of life. Students presented gifts of school supplies and arts materials for the younger children.
At the closing session, Daniel Tysman, Head of ORT’s Education department, told students that as the Summer School finished, it was now their responsibility to share what they had learned and become more involved in activism.
He said: “World ORT’s Ecology Summer School isn’t just an investment in ORT’s students or the ORT network, but for wider society for many years to come. The memories of this experience should always inspire the students to be more responsible and to speak up on issues concerning the environment and conservation.”