A CHANCE of a Lifetime

For the past fourteen years, Connecting Humans And Nature through Conservation Experiences (CHANCE) has introduced Penn Staters to conservation issues in countries like Costa Rica, China, Cuba, Panama, and, most recently, Australia.

With a variety of native animals and landscapes ranging from tropical rainforests to dry deserts to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is a perfect environment to study biodiversity. And thanks to a Penn State education abroad program, a group of Penn Staters recently had the opportunity to explore some of the continent’s most diverse species and locations.

This July, fifteen students from Penn State Abington, Beaver, Dubois, Lehigh Valley, Fayette, Schuylkill, World Campus, and University Park, as well as three Pennsylvania middle and high school teachers and one college professor from Middle Tennessee State University spent two weeks in North Queensland, Australia. There, participants conducted conservation research and participated in service projects as part of CHANCE, a program based at Penn State Lehigh Valley.

“CHANCE is an environmental education program that works to put students on the frontline so they can conquer our world’s most troubling environmental issues,” said Jacqueline McLaughlin, associate professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley and founding director of CHANCE.

The award-winning program, which started in 2004 as a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, is open to Penn State students from every major and campus as well as teachers across the country. So far, more than 400 undergraduate students and 250 educators have participated in CHANCE field courses around the world.

“It was part of my lifelong goal to set up a program where students could research and appreciate biodiversity. And through CHANCE, they could even save biodiversity.” —Jacqueline McLaughlin, founding director of CHANCE

The diversity of participants is by design, says McLaughlin.

“Conservation should be interdisciplinary,” McLaughlin said. “Every student needs to understand the value of our world's ecosystems, how they're broken, and how they can be repaired. It helps them be better citizens of the world.”

Twenty-Four-Hour Classroom

More than 9,500 miles away from State College, Pennsylvania, nineteen CHANCE participants traded their textbooks and laptops for wetsuits and snorkeling gear as they embarked on their two-week excursion in North Queensland.

Once in Australia, McLaughlin and co-instructor Kathleen Fadigan, an assistant teaching professor at Penn State Abington, led volunteers through a packed schedule of researching sea turtles with James Cook University’s Turtle Health Research Team, participating in the “Eye on the Reef” Rapid Monitoring Program, and learning from indigenous educators on the history of the Nywaigi Aboriginal culture. 

“In every CHANCE program, students do authentic research that has a large impact,” McLaughlin said. “In Cuba, we looked at research on environmental policy. In China, students analyzed rivers and lakes for water pollution. And in Australia, students participated in the largest citizen science project focused on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.”

“I really want my students to start thinking about how the choices they make on a daily basis can impact the world around them.” —Melissa O’Brien, Penn State alumna and high school science teacher

Talia Potochny, a rising sophomore studying geography, was thrilled to be able to participate in an immersive experience like CHANCE so early in her college career.

“I was expecting to just observe the research going on at James Cook University,” Potochny said. “Instead, we were given hands-on tasks and the opportunity to actually contribute to the research. CHANCE is really a twenty-four-hour classroom.”

In addition to participating in research, CHANCE participants also help the communities they visit through service-learning projects.

“When we teach students that species diversity is declining, they understand the data but are missing the link to what they could do to better the situation,” McLaughlin said. “So participants spend at least a week in the field remedying an environmental problem.”

For example, during the CHANCE Costa Rica program, group members worked alongside non-governmental organizations to reduce plastic pollution harming leatherback sea turtles. In addition to collecting and recycling plastic waste on beaches, participants also logged pollutants in a database to track points of origin.

For Potochny—aside from interacting with local wildlife like koalas and dingoes and even washing a baby turtle with a toothbrush—the service-learning projects were some of the most rewarding experiences of the program.

“After participating in the Rapid Monitoring Program, we got to help clean up the Great Barrier Reef by diving down and removing seaweed and algae that was blocking sunlight from reaching the coral,” Potochny said. “It was really cool to not only study the reef but then also help improve its health.”

Transformative Teaching

The CHANCE experience doesn’t end once participants board the plane to return home—a post-program assignment encourages reflection on how the skills learned abroad can be applied in daily life. Keeping this conversation going is one of many ways CHANCE seeks to transform the education abroad experience, says McLaughlin.

“We need more transformative ways of teaching, and that’s all about impact,” McLaughlin said. “This includes impacting teachers, classrooms, practitioners, and students so they are exposed to broader career paths and niches they never experienced before.”

Jacqueline McLaughlin poses with two students and a sea turtle on the beach in Costa Rica.

A Lifelong Goal for McLaughlin

It had been a lifelong goal of Jacqueline McLaughlin (pictured middle), associate professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley and founding director of CHANCE, to start a conservation-focused program that allows students to research and appreciate biodiversity. She credits her own undergraduate experience and former biology professor for inspiring her efforts. 

Image: Courtesy of CHANCE

“Conservation should be interdisciplinary. Every student needs to understand the value of our world's ecosystems, how they're broken, and how they can be repaired.” —Jacqueline McLaughlin

For high school science teacher and Penn State alumna Melissa O’Brien, participating in the CHANCE Australia program provided an opportunity to gain new experiences and knowledge that she could take back to her students at Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

“As a teacher, it was really helpful for me to see how important it is to give students hands-on learning experiences with wildlife and conservation,” O’Brien said. “I would like to have my students get involved in a local citizen science project where they can have a similar experience to what we did in CHANCE.” 

While in Australia, O’Brien was struck by the devastating effects plastic waste can have on sea life like turtles, and she has already invited McLaughlin to host a lab with her class this fall and discuss the importance of conservation.

“I really want my students to start thinking about how the choices they make on a daily basis can impact the world around them,” O’Brien said. “Even something as simple as switching to a reusable water bottle versus buying single-use plastic items can contribute to creating a sustainable future.”

A Lifelong Goal

For McLaughlin, seeing CHANCE participants like Potochny and O’Brien continue to share the importance of conservation is proof of the program’s success.

“It was part of my lifelong goal to set up a program where students could research and appreciate biodiversity,” McLaughlin said. “And through CHANCE, they could even save biodiversity.”

McLaughlin’s inspiration for developing the program stemmed from her own experiences as an undergraduate at New College of Florida. There, McLaughlin studied under biology professor John B. Morrill whose commitment to biodiversity inspired McLaughlin’s journey to create her own conservation-focused curriculum.

“He taught us to be open-minded intellectuals who saw the broader impacts of our field,” McLaughlin said. “That’s one of the most important things I do—have students see life on our planet and appreciate what it means to sustain it.”