Nearly two centuries ago, Charles Darwin formulated his famous theory of evolution — a theory with far-reaching implications for medicine, ecology and the social sciences — largely due to the species he witnessed while traveling in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. This volcanic archipelago, home to species found nowhere else in the world, remains the site of many modern-day research studies on everything from micro-evolution to animal behavior. This October break, a 2-credit research practicum offered through the College of Science gave students the opportunity to pursue their own research projects in the “living laboratory” of the Galapagos.
Practicum participants studied many environmental and social facets of the Galapagos — sea lion and penguin behavior, water acidity levels and sustainable economic development, for example. In addition to pursuing their independent projects, the class visited several islands as a group, touring lava fields, highland forests and white sand beaches. The species about which Darwin wrote so prolifically — marine iguanas, sea lions and finches, for example — looked on all the while.
Students described the program as both informative and enjoyable. “The Galapagos class will probably be one of the biggest highlights of my junior year,” said participant Kevin Ruiz. “It's remarkable how we can go see first hand how the environment shapes the adaptations of the organisms on the islands, from the finch beaks, to the turtle shells, to the sea lion sizes.”
The course, in addition to helping students hone their research skills, increased students’ appreciation. “It also was remarkable to learn how small changes in the environment have affected the island's ecosystems, and it brings an awareness that overall, more conservation is needed to protect rare places like the Galapagos,” Ruiz continued.
The practicum involved a service component as well as a research emphasis. In the weeks leading up to the departure, students visited South Bend’s Center for the Homeless to teach the school-age residents about biology, evolution and the history of the Galapagos.
“This was truly an amazing way to experience science outside of a textbook in the real world. We were able to observe so much about the interaction of species, biodiversity and the effects of human impacts on a delicate ecosystem,” said senior Cristina Mancini. “I would strongly encourage anyone interested in pursuing science as a career to consider taking the Galapagos practicum, because it has definitely augmented the material I've learned in my classes and renewed my passion for science.”
The author was a member of the research practicum trip.