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Update From Panama: Building Our Environmental Education Efforts

By Amanda Gibson

It's summer vacation for all the students here in Panama, but we're getting excited about school.

Panama City skyline. © Amanda Gibson

The strangest culture shock upon arriving in Panama City after two months in a teeny isolated indigenous village? Napkins. Having almost forgotten that they existed, I actually laughed out loud to see little white squares on the table. The best piece of culture shock? Pressing a button on the washing machine and realizing that for two glorious weeks I wouldn't have to scrub my clothes in a river!

Though I relished using it, Morrison Mast and I did not come to the city for the washing machine, but rather to re-engage with partners after so much time spent off the grid. We met with the Guna General Congress to negotiate contracts and permissions, touched base with partners at the Panamanian Authority of Aquatic Resources (ARAP), and reached out to new contacts in waste management.

Armila's educators meet with ARAP staff in Panama City. © Amanda Gibson

One of the most enjoyable events, however, was the opportunity to guest lecture at the local Balboa Academy, courtesy of our long-time mentor and “make sure the Americans survive in Armila"-er, Karen Dertien. Standing in front of 40 ninth-graders, I briefly wondered if they could smell fear (or at least lack of experience), but they were great listeners. Because of their teacher's conservation excursions, ranging from beach clean-ups to visits to indigenous communities, they had a solid background for understanding why Morrison and I talked about sea turtle conservation in terms of human threats and community solutions. Afterwards, 12 girls approached Karen about how they could help protect sea turtles, and she got them set up fundraising to sponsor a turtle.

Sea turtle conservation lecture at Balboa Academy. © Amanda Gibson

Morrison Mast and Chimmy Gonzales are excited to have new environmental education resources. © Amanda Gibson

This experience set the bar high for my upcoming work in Armila. To address local environmental education in a sustainable and effective way, I am working with local educators to develop the biology curriculum in Armila's public schools. As a first step, Morrison and I coordinated a meeting between ARAP representatives and Armila's educators in the city.

ARAP provided Armila with a set of environmental education textbooks, a huge curriculum boost for Armila's dedicated but resource-limited teachers. Now, our task is to adapt and build upon this curriculum to make it relevant to children in an indigenous town, to reinforce cultural conservation values, and to take advantage Armila's unique natural laboratory. It has already been a blast. We've designed games that imitate baby sea turtles' dash to the beach, projects to record the stories of town elders, and experiments that illustrate difficult concepts such as decomposition. Using my research to create local education resources already promises to be one of the best uses of my time here, and I'm looking forward to the test-run this coming semester.

Many of the ideas for lesson plans and labs have come from family and friends, and I'd love to hear your ideas too! Please feel free to send any suggestions to me at achaigibson[at]gmail[dot]com, and stay tuned for more updates as the project progresses.


Amanda Gibson is Oceanic Society's first fellow, who spent her fellowship (2013-2014) living and working with the Guna indigenous community of Armila in southeastern Panama on a variety of conservation and community development projects. Amanda is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.


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