Travel course offers first-hand look at natural hazards facing Thailand

Students from Penn State recently toured Thailand for a Maymester study course that focused on how a developing nation deals with natural disasters. Credit: Kevin Furlong / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From its gorgeous beaches to energetic cities, Thailand is known for its iconic tourist attractions. But Penn State students who recently toured the Southeast Asian nation as part of a Maymester study course had a different experience.

They took the road less traveled, learning about natural hazards facing the developing nation, with pit stops visiting elephant sanctuaries, animal hospitals, hydroelectric plants and mangrove-lined coastlines. They even met with a top geoscientist and two divers who aided in the 2018 cave rescue of a dozen Thai soccer players and their assistant coach.

Lessons focused on the intersection between natural hazards and societal well-being. Thailand, which has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, faces threats from tsunamis along the Andaman Sea coast, earthquakes near its capital of Bangkok, seawater degradation of groundwater, flooding and climate change. Students looked at how a rapidly growing nation in a mixed industrial-agricultural economy will grapple with these threats.

Kevin Furlong, a geosciences professor in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, who led the course, said ties with faculty and students at Kasetsart University (KU) in Bangkok made for the unique educational experience. Local faculty members helped arrange tours and travel while local students tagged along, offering insights and chances to converse with peers.

At sites like the area devastated by the 2004 tsunami the lessons are still fresh.

“The nation has had serious flooding, and it’s very eye-opening to see how a city of 12 million people deals with that,” Furlong said. “At the site of the tsunami, students looked and said ‘wow, this isn’t at the beach. This is a mile inland and there’s a massive naval boat sitting there.’ “Those things make it come together for the students. They came away with a lot of experiences that would be really hard pressed to do in that length of time.”

Some experiences, however, weren’t on the agenda. When Passakorn Pananont, a geoscientist at KU who helped with the mine rescue, offered to arrange a talk with two people involved in the rescue, students jumped at the chance.

“I was in shock at how everything unfolded and ended up being successful,” said Jeslymar Berrios, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering. “I could never imagine having the weight of 13 lives on my shoulders the way those rescuers did. It was one of our first meetings in Thailand, and it was something I knew would be my favorite.”

Berrios said she has an interest in geosciences but still found lessons applicable to her major. For her final project, she applied her engineering background to the evacuation efforts at Patong Beach during the 2004 tsunami. 

Another student, Christine Ruffin, a senior majoring in veterinary and biomedical sciences, said she sought out the course because it was outside of her major but quickly found ways where it was applicable.

In her final project, Ruffin looked at how flooding in 2011 affected wildlife, livestock and stray animals. A talk with the head of the exotic animals department at KU Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, one of the world’s largest animal science facilities, inspired her research. Thailand is thought to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Climate change, natural disasters and development threatens that distinction. 

“The benefit of this particular class was the ability to study the interconnectedness of geoscience and how it plays a role in all other aspects of life,” Ruffin said. “I studied how natural disasters not only affect people, but animal populations as well.”

The immersive learning experiences were matched only by the immersive cultural experiences. Students said working alongside their Thai peers gave them unique perspectives on life in Thailand and experiences outside of the realm of tourism.

“One of the most incredible experiences of the trip was the opportunity to make friends with KU students," Ruffin said. “Our Thai colleagues were so welcoming and helpful. Whether they helped us order food, negotiate prices at street markets, translate during interactions, or serve as ambassadors for Thai culture, our Thai colleagues really had our backs. Now looking back on our study abroad, I can’t imagine navigating Thailand without them. They truly enriched our experience.”

This experience is one of several