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Around the Field: University of Akron’s Tahiti Study Abroad Program

Around the Field: Program Feature

University of Akron’s Tahiti Study Abroad Program Gives Students the Opportunity to Research Geckos and Fish

Eleven students and two professors from the University of Akron will research geckos and fish in Tahiti for two weeks starting in late May in a study abroad version of the university’s vertebrate zoology course.

Successfully putting together a study abroad in such an unusual and remote (more than 2,600 miles from either Hawaii or New Zealand) is the result of many factors. The faculty, Dr. Richard Londraville and Dr. Peter Niewiarowski have taught a vertebrate zoology course abroad many times, and not only in French Polynesia, but also in San Salvador and the Florida Keys.

Londraville said that he originated the idea of studying fish and lizards in the tropics, then chose Moorea (a small island in Tahiti) because of the “excellent condition of the reefs and the affordability of being able to stay in a French field station [Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement (CRIOBE)] that is part of the Sorbonne [French university].” He is a molecular/cell physiologist and ichthyologist (fish scientist), and Niewiarowski is an evolutionary biologist/ecologist who studies reptiles, amphibians and biomimicry (designing and making human materials, structures and systems based on nature).

Heather N. Pollock, Akron’s study abroad coordinator and a professor of classics, said,“It’s a beautiful blend of classroom and applied learning. This is the model that we are trying to develop here at UA.”

Londraville said, “The fauna in Moorea is exceptional, and the setting is exotic, providing a transformational experience for undergraduates traveling from Ohio. Students also are being introduced to the relevant culture and history of Tahiti”

The four-credit course is a “field research experience where students come up with original research projects to collaborate on in groups,” Londraville said.

After choosing Tahiti, Niewiarowski and Londraville visited Moorea (university paid) to research the location and make arrangements, which Niewiarowski called “critical since even though we have much overlapping expertise, we also have unique disciplinary strengths and perspectives that allowed fuller assessment than either of us could have done alone.”

Londraville said planning the Tahiti study abroad took more than a year.

Londraville explained that the primary academic goals for the study abroad, which is part of a May interession course, are “to give the students experience in original scientific field research, including publishing results in a peer-reviewed journal if possible. We also are immersed in local culture,” partly through staying at Criobe.

As a research-oriented program, Londraville said students “collaborate with peers in developing, executing, and analyzing results of original scientific research….[T]hey will be exposed to flora, fauna and culture that is starkly different from their home. For many students, this will be their first trip abroad.”

He said students’ “guided independent research” involves “planning sessions, work sessions, troubleshooting, [and] communication/dissemination sessions. During two weeks they will directly experience the stresses and satisfaction of scientific research.”

Students will have the option of SCUBA diving, but it is not required. Londraville explained, “If someone is advanced certified, CRIOBE will allow them to dive recreationally with DAN insurance and certification from a doctor that they are fit.”

Promotion materials estimated that the Tahiti study abroad would cost $3,200, including all travel costs and tuition; Londraville described the “logistics and cost” of the program as “challenging.” But he said, “We get support from multiple sources on campus such as the [Williams] Honors College, Department of Biology and College of Arts and Science, financial and logistic.”

Pollock explained that Akron’s policy is that courses with fewer than 12 students cannot be offered in the summer.

“The dean was happy to commit to running the class even if it enrolled fewer than 12; the faculty agreed to take small-class format pay if necessary. The obvious goal was to run this extraordinary program by all means necessary, and happily everyone was on board from the get-go!”

The University of Akron ultimately was still able to keep the final cost to about $2,800.

The Tahiti program is open to all majors in any year. Pollock said it is “one of seven—all different—summer [study abroad] trips. I like that it gives STEM folks a trip that usually seems like it is for people from outside science.” She explained that her office wants to involve more STEM students in study abroad and offer more study abroad programs that are part of a University of Akron course.

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