Students or Scientists? Both!

Undergraduates and professors conduct global climate change research in Panama as part of Penn State Lehigh Valley's award-winning CHANCE program.

They rolled up their sleeves with Smithsonian scientists and visited the Panama Canal and an indigenous village. They explored the biodiversity of mangroves and bird life, observed manatees, and participated in sea turtle conservation.

One student wrote about this amazing academic experience. Her thoughts about the Penn State Lehigh Valley CHANCE (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences) field program and her passion for science, excerpted below from her published blog entries, tell a story of dedication, education, perspiration, and plain old hard work—with some fun mixed in for good measure.

CHANCE students pose with young students in a classroom in Panama.

CHANCE students in a classroom in Panama

CHANCE creates unique learning environments that immerse its participants in real-world environmental research and conservation efforts using inquiry-based strategies and interdisciplinary approaches. Participants learn to develop skill sets that help them understand and solve environmental and societal problems.

Image: Penn State

No electricity or running water? Sand and sweat embedded in their clothes? "In the end, it was all completely worth it."—Penn State Abington student Colleen Kelsey

August 7, 2013: For Granted

I considered myself to be fairly grateful. We all take advantage of things and get greedy on occasion, but most days I remembered to thank fate and everyone around me for what I have. I was also very aware that there were many others who have far less than I do.

But being aware and living it are two very different things. 

Awareness brings compassion, empathy, and most times makes you a little more humble. But in Panama, there were times I was actually living it. There were places, mostly on the islands, that had no electricity.

CHANCE students looking for manatees in Panama.

Waiting for manatees

"I hope CHANCE continues for years to come to positively impact our world through its mission to enhance the teaching and learning of environmental science through real-world, research-based practices." — Jacqueline McLaughlin, CHANCE's founding director and associate professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley 

Image: Penn State

At night—and we had to be up all hours sometimes to patrol for turtles—I had to dress in the blackest dark. When I returned from patrols, I had to shower in the dark using a bucket because there was also no running water.

Since there was no running water—and you wouldn’t dare waste the little water you had to wash clothes—we all wore our two outfits over and over again. There was a week's worth of sweat, sand, and sea breeze soaked into our clothes that I don’t think I will ever be able to wash out.

Dr. McLaughlin with a baby leatherback sea turtle

Dr. Jacqueline McLaughlin with a baby leatherback sea turtle

Students worked with nesting sea turtles and hatchlings along with members of WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network), a network of experts in more than 40 nations and territories committed to an integrated, regional capacity that ensures the recovery and sustainable management of depleted sea turtle populations.

Image: Penn State

In the end, it was all completely worth it.

Every time I put on my clean clothes (and I have so many clothes!) and able to wash them it makes me happy. My life is so much more complete now.

Every little thing I used to take for granted, I fully appreciate. It has made me a much better roommate (because I’m so much cleaner), daughter (because I thank my parents more sincerely now), student (I put a lot of effort into my projects), and person (I’m alive and I’m happy.)

"I wonder about processes and the environment. I remember all those science classes I’ve taken and apply them to what I’m seeing and feeling at that moment."—Colleen Kelsey

September 12, 2013: Welcome to your senior year as a Science Student

So it has been one hectic and crazy first three weeks of school!

Sitting in room 313 Woodland on the Abington campus, waiting for my syllabus to be handed out, I hear what I already know is coming: “It won't be easy and you’re going to need to put a lot of work into passing this class.”

And it has been nothing less than that. I’ve been reading at least 10-15 pages of textbook, solving incredible amounts of physics equations, writing note cards, and just trying to remember to stop and eat.

This is usually when I ask myself, “WHY?? Why do I want to do this major? There are so many things that would be easier if I’d just switched two years ago.”

Every time I’m outside, I look at the trees and I breathe in the air, my mind is at peace. I love it. I’m 100 percent in my element, whether it's 90 degrees and humid, or if its raining and chilly, or even when I’m walking through snow drifts and freezing. I am completely content outside.

I have also taken some time in the last week or so to notice my reactions when younger students ask me what my major is and why I would want to struggle through it.

Many of them are questioning their own fields of study, and they want to understand why I stuck it out.

So why do I do it?

Because I have to. Science is my addiction.

Read more of Colleen's blog entries as well as those of other Penn State Abington students. 

What is CHANCE?

CHANCE began as a partnership between Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Education that would address the need to train the state's high school teachers in the areas of conservation and environmental science in an innovative way, beyond classroom walls and textbooks. Underpinning the goals of the program is the belief that scientific concepts are a lot more engaging and better understood when you can see it applied in the real world.

Two tools anchor the CHANCE program. The first is a series of online learning modules that are freely accessible to high school and undergraduate educators. They cover broad scientific concepts like global warming, species extinction, biodiversity, and invasive plant species, by employing the very specific, very real, research strategies of scientists in the field.

The second tool in the CHANCE toolbox invites high school science teachers and Penn State undergrads to gain confidence in teaching these concepts through research-based, hands-on international field courses. The courses utilize an experiential learning model that includes pre-trip assignments, a seventeen-day practicum, and post-trip assignments. 

To date, CHANCE has given student opportunities to travel to Costa Rica, Panama, and China for field experiences. Participants who complete the course become CHANCE Fellows and part of a growing community that includes more than 130 educators and 150 undergraduates from across the state, nation, and now the world.