World ORT has resumed its face-to-face international events for High School students for the first time since 2020, starting with the Ecology Summer School in Panama.
Arriving wearing facemasks and equipped with sanitizer gel, it seems Covid is still very much a part of students’ lives in this part of the world. But for the participants the experience in February was a welcome relief from the disruption and isolation that constituted a significant part of their teenage years.
The group of 27 Spanish-speaking students representing ORT network schools in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico Panama, Peru, Spain (Barcelona and Madrid) and Venezuela were invited, following a rigorous selection process, to experience a new way of studying the natural world.
The students explored the Soberania National Park, which contains 20,000 hectares of tropical rainforest rich in biodiversity, with countless species of animals and plants. The base for the Summer School is less than a kilometer from the celebrated Panama Canal, at the heart of a community of researchers that has grown around the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa.
For the ORT students, the park was their classroom for 12 days of intensive work, including designing and carrying out their own investigative research projects, meeting world-class experts in the flora and fauna of the region, and learning about the history and culture of Panama.
A crash course while walking through the vegetation introduced the students to the rainforest ecosystem. Their first task was to hone their eyes and ears to make sharper observations and suggest insightful hypotheses to test.
One group of students became curious after observing a stream of leaf-cutter ants, filing in line to and from their nest. Their group’s investigation involved removing individual ants short distances from the path and timing how long it takes them to follow the scent trails to find their way back to the colony.
Another group investigated the feeding preferences of rainforest fish by offering them a range of foods including lettuce and ants in various combinations. The group has developed an innovative method of measuring their responses quantitatively to determine whether they are herbivores, carnivores or omnivores.
Valerie Rozencwaig, a student at the Instituto Dr. Jaim Weizman in San Jose, Costa Rica, explained: “We were researching the diets of different fish in the rainforest to learn how their feeding preferences vary with their habitat. This experience is so valuable to me as I’m studying advanced biology at school and hope to become a vet one day.”
The topics of the research projects were diverse, reflecting the interests of the students. These include studying birds, butterflies’ feeding habits, fungal growth on palm leaves and the behaviour of nocturnal mammals. Each researcher was responsible for collecting and analyzing their group’s data to test their hypothesis and a full academic write-up was produced by each team.
Enzo Cabarrocas from Hatikva school in Barcelona was part of the team studying ants. “We’ve been given a lot of independence to choose our research topics and the methods we want to use. I’m really looking forward to analyzing our data.”
Coordinated by Guido Berguido, a local conservationist and social entrepreneur, World ORT’s annual program was established in 2016 with the help of ORT Panama’s late President, Samuel Bern.
Guido describes himself as “a biologist by training, expedition leader by accident, and a conservationist at heart.” He is an expert on Panama’s biodiversity and directs Adopta, a non-government organization dedicated to protecting rainforests in Panama.
“The urgent need for all of us to take steps to prevent biodiversity loss is one that we hope each and every ORT student will take home with them,” said Daniel Tysman, Head of World ORT’s Education Department.
“Not all of these students will become ecologists, but I’m sure that they are going to be high-flyers in their chosen fields. This experience opens their eyes to the invaluable worth, but also the fragility, of the natural world so that when they become decision-makers they will be influential in bringing about positive change.”
Enzo continued: “When I leave school, I’d like to study International Relations and hope one day to work for the UN. This is the first time I’ve crossed the Atlantic and I’ve never spent so much time with people from Latin America. It’s very interesting to meet and to live with so many people who share similar interests to mine.”
The Summer School also gives ORT students a chance to get to know each other and to learn about life in different parts of the world. Each of them gave presentations about their home countries and brought samples of their local foods and drinks to share.
“I’ve enjoyed meeting people from so many different countries. Although we’ve only known each other for a few days, we have so much in common that it feels like I’m with friends,” added Valerie.