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SDG wheel with illustrations of Dave Toews and Sally Mackenzie

Study abroad makes its big return

1 November 2022

After a nearly two-year hiatus, study abroad programming has returned for Penn State students in the Eberly College of Science. Students across a variety of majors had opportunities in both Costa Rica and Italy in the 2021-22 academic year. Each of these trips marked eager steps toward the return of additional study abroad opportunities for the new school year.

The first course to return was BIOL 499A: Tropical Field Ecology. James Marden, professor of biology, has taken students to Costa Rica to study ecology every year since the winter break of the 1993-94 academic year—that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic put the course on hold. 

“We don’t have cell service at the field stations, so we didn’t even know about COVID-19 until we were on our flight back from Costa Rica in January 2020,” he recalled. “Our students were so grateful for the opportunity to be the first group back this past December.”

The Tropical Field Ecology course takes students on a journey through a variety of climates and ecosystems within Costa Rica as they work toward completing independent research projects in ecology. According to Marden, Costa Rica provides the perfect setting for this. Large mountains that span the length of the country cause a wide variety of natural communities to form based on the varying elevation and moisture. This diversity allows students to choose different areas as the setting for their research projects.

group gathers in front of huge tree in Costa Rica
The Tropical Field Ecology class gathers in the rainforests of Costa Rica. Image provided.

For Sebastian Velazquez, a biology student entering his fourth year, doing research in the field was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. “It’s one thing doing an experiment in a classroom lab,” he said. “It’s a whole different experience in the field. We learned so much about being able to adapt on the fly and see the experiments turn out in unexpected ways.” 

Marden agreed that the process of students gathering their own data has a huge impact on how they view their projects. “It gives them a personal stake in how this turns out,” he said. “This isn’t like a lab exercise from their classroom experiments. We don’t know how it will turn out either, and that makes them even more excited to find out.”

After two years with nearly no visitors, the field stations were teeming with wildlife. The students saw scarlet macaws overhead and whales from the coastline, but Marden noted that seeing pumas was a first for him. “This might be the only class of Penn State students to ever see a Nittany Lion during class time,” he noted with a laugh. 

The animals were the highlight of the trip for Velazquez. “My favorite point in the trip was hiking through the rainforest in Corcovado National Park,” he said. “We saw all sorts of monkeys climbing everywhere through the trees. It was so surreal.”

For Marden, the best part is seeing the “ah-ha” moment for the students. On one outing in Corcovado National Park, Marden and a couple of his students came across a low-lying pond with trees growing up through the water. One small sapling had a basilisk lizard perched on a thin branch. These lizards are known for their ability to run across water surfaces due to their large flat feet that they slap down as they run. 

When a student told Marden that she didn’t know what a basilisk lizard was, Marden asked her to get her camera ready. Once she was set, he carefully took a stick and got the lizard to jump off the sapling, causing it to run across the water to their delight. 

“Watching a student see a lizard run on water—that does it for me,” said Marden. “The science is amazing, but having the students see the science is even better.”

After a successful winter break trip, more students were able to join in the study abroad revival for the spring semester through SC 475N: Anatomy in Italy. Unlike Tropical Field Ecology, this course involves a full spring semester of coursework with the abroad portion taking place during spring break. Students in this course have the unique opportunity to combine science, history, and language in the classroom portion of the course. On Mondays and Fridays throughout the semester, the students attend class to learn Italian from Jason Laine, associate teaching professor of Italian. Their Wednesdays cover the science and history of anatomy as taught by Joel Waters, the Eberly College of Science education abroad coordinator, and John Waters, teaching professor of biology.

“Often in science, we are expected to be very objective,” said Stephen Andrews, a recent graduate in biology. “The world doesn’t really work on being solely objective. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists with cultural, sociological, and philosophical context, and this course taught us to recognize that.” 

In addition to the interdisciplinary lens that the course provided, there were also practical benefits from having language and history as prominent portions of the course, according to Katelyn Berdy, a biology student entering her fourth year. “The dialogue preparation of the Italian course was absolutely crucial. It was great to feel confident enough to do simple things like ordering my gelato at the end of the night.”

Italy provides the perfect backdrop for the students to learn anatomy because of the deep roots of the field in that area. 

“The science of anatomy didn’t spring forth from the first edition of the book Gray’s Anatomy in the 1850s,” noted John Waters. “Rather, it evolved and became a modern science in Northern Italy in the middle of 15th century.” 

class gathers next to river in Italy
The Anatomy in Italy class gathers on the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River in Florence. Image provided.

In the classroom, many of the educational tools used in the history and science portions of the course are primary sources, meaning they were written by the people of Italy at that time. Those historical roots are still quite visible today. 

“In Bologna, we visited a historical anatomical wax museum that had detailed wax figures of everything from eyes to muscular systems,” Andrews recalled. “It was amazing to see how anatomically accurate they were.” 

Another facet that makes this course unique is the partnership that has developed with Maria Luisa Genova, associate professor of biomedical and neuromotor sciences at the University of Bologna. Genova works with medical students at the University of Bologna. In Italy, students are admitted to medical school directly after completing high school, meaning their medical students are the same age as the Penn State students studying abroad. 

“We didn’t really know what to expect when we put all of the students together,” said John Waters. “It was amazing to watch our students bond with them almost immediately.”

 Joel Waters added, “They often have a picture of older students, and they feel like they won’t relate to them. They have so much more in common with them than they anticipate, and it is really special to watch them realize that.” Penn State and the University of Bologna are currently working to formalize an opportunity for Genova’s students to visit Penn State as well as they continue to grow the budding relationship.

Much like Marden, John and Joel Waters both felt that their favorite moments each year come from the point where they see the students experience “the magic.” For Joel Waters, that moment came on a walk to an early morning tour. The student nearest him received a text message. It felt out of place—at the time, it was around 4 a.m. in the U.S., so it likely wouldn’t be family. Suddenly, they were getting many more texts in rapid succession. “It was just one of the Italian students they had met the night before sending pictures from a discussion they were having,” Joel said. “I was amazed! They were already so close to the other students that they were exchanging numbers and keeping in touch.” 

John Waters recalled a similar moment involving the Italian medical students during an afternoon gathering. “The students just began to interact and converse, and in that moment, it no longer mattered if we—the professors—were there,” he said.

For all of these students, there was a resounding piece of advice for other students considering study abroad: If you’re on the fence, go for it. 

“I remember feeling a little upset that I wouldn’t get to go home for spring break, but that feeling went away so quickly once we arrived in Italy,” Berdy recalled. 

While the financial component of study abroad opportunities can be an important consideration for some students, multiple scholarships are available thanks to support from alumni and other donors. 

“We try so hard to keep the course fee as low as possible so we can make this accessible to as many students as possible,” said Marden. “Scholarships are such a key part of what we do, and they really level the playing field.” 

Velazquez, Berdy, and Andrews along with many other students received scholarships that helped them participate in these opportunities. 

Eberly College of Science students interested in participating in study abroad can contact Joel Waters at to discuss scholarships and global opportunities.