State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Explore Field Ecology in Puerto Rico

The Earth Institute’s Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates (SEE-U) program provides undergraduate students of all majors from all accredited colleges or universities with a global understanding of ecology and environmental sustainability. It provides students with the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in unique natural settings in addition to participation in a combination of classroom lectures and lab work. Students gain 6 credits in 5 weeks studying at one of the SEE-U sites in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Jordan, or Puerto Rico.

Ana Castillo, an undergraduate at Columbia College (2013), was one of the participants of the SEE-U program in Puerto Rico. She became interested in the program upon learning that SEE-U credits apply towards her majors in Environmental Biology and Sustainable Development.

Coral reef bioblitz lab
SEE-U students off Isla Magueyes in southwestern Puerto Rico getting ready to snorkel in the coral reef to survey coral and fish biodiversity.
“I knew I wanted to have a study abroad experience during my undergraduate career but I was not ready to commit to a whole semester abroad,” said Ana. “I also really enjoy spending time outdoors so the field component of the program appealed to me. The best way to learn about nature is to be in nature.”

The SEE-U courses do not require prior scientific knowledge and therefore attract students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Many of these SEE-U participants desire to have a “non-traditional” learning experience. Instructors who are actively involved in researching contemporary issues teach the SEE-U courses at the field sites to create “a truly ecologically immersive experience,” as Ana described it.

The SEE-U site in Puerto Rico is based in El Yunque National Forest at El Verde Field Station, which is home to field biologists year round. One of the many benefits of becoming part of this scientific community for the summer is the opportunity to learn about ongoing research in ecology and conservation biology directly from working scientists. “We often had guests in the classroom speaking about research ranging from the effects of damming Puerto Rico’s freshwater streams to long term experimental projects such as The Canopy Trimming Experiment used to study ecosystem hurricane resilience,” said Ana.

Students continue their exposure to field ecology methods through field labs as well as a field practical and final project. Students investigate research questions and design and implement their own experiment to collect data directly from their natural surroundings. The SEE-U curriculum allows students to immediately apply the knowledge and skills they are learning in the classroom through the field labs and outings.

One of the highlights of Ana’s SEE-U experience in Puerto Rico was a lab in which students snorkeled in a coral reef off the coast of the Isla Magueyes in southwestern Puerto Rico. The lab was called a “bioblitz” because the goal was to identify and record all the different marine species students encountered while snorkeling throughout the day. “At first I was nervous about going snorkeling because I don’t know how to swim very well,” said Ana “but I quickly got over my anxiety once I got my life vest on and started seeing all the different types of fishes and corals!”

The SEE-U program aims to provide students with unique experiences to help them gain deeper understanding of ecology and environmental sustainability.

“My SEE-U experience was pivotal in shaping the way I think about the relationships between people and the environment,” said Ana. “It greatly influenced the kind of academic and career path I want to pursue. Spending time living and learning in the rainforest really made me think about how human activity can degrade ecosystems so I would like to continue learning about them to be able to develop more sustainable and even mutually beneficial relationships with the environment.”

SEE-U students consistently describe their time abroad as an unforgettable learning experience through which they gained skills they would otherwise not have developed through traditional course work.

To learn more about SEE-U courses available this summer, visit our website or contact Desmond Beirne at or 212-854-0149. Need-based fellowships are available in amounts up to $3,000 for our 6 credit programs at all field sites. To apply for a fellowship simply fill out that portion of the application.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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