Indigenous Knowledge and Experiential Learning: Notes from the 2024 Panama Field Study Semester

Applications to take part in the Panama Field Study Semester in Winter 2025 are open until April 22, 2024.

The typical day to day for a student at McGill usually entails running across campus to reach your next class and reviewing your course material in the library. However, for students taking part in the the Panama field study semester, regional and rural landscapes of Panama become the "classroom" during their almost four month long learning experience. Offered as a joint venture between McGill University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Panama Field Study Semester gives McGill students from various disciplines the opportunity to take courses that specifically address Latin America social and tropical environmental issues while working alongside local communities. 

Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies and Associate Member of the Bieler School of Environment, has been a member of the Field Study's teaching staff for the last 14 years and is now the program's director. As the  Winter 2024 semester comes to a close, I had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Studnicki-Gizbert about some of the amazing features and unexpected facets of the field semester in Panama. 

The day-to-day schedule of the PFSS 

The field semester takes place over a period of four months. Students are required to take three courses, for a total of 9 credits that provide formal training, as well as hands-on experience in an internship setting. Students follow an ever-changing schedule, in which they cover different sites throughout Panama. 

"Due to it being a field semester, students do 3 classes in different disciplines and then they do an extensive research internship and then an integrative exercise with a community in Panama," says Studnicki-Gizbert.  "We do a lot of social and ecological monitoring with community members. One team may be doing water assessments with bugs in the river while others are doing interviews with community members so there’s a lot of participation." In this environment students are provided the opportunity to research something they are really passionate about.

“When you go from theory to application, whatever you plan may not work out," he adds. "Students learn a lot about adaptation, on how to get certain results. Expect that what you have planned is not going to work out. Failure is actually a good thing in some senses because in Panama things are not controlled, it is a time for students to learn how to try things.”  

Goals of the Program 

Participating in various fields is part of Dr. Studnicki-Gizbert's goal for the students of the program.

“My aim is to show by the end of this how a certain environmental issue plays out biologically, socially, economically and how they all link together," he says. "Due to the students coming in from various different disciplines we want to show them how other things work when dealing with an issue. For example, a Biology student will come in knowing a lot of the environmental perspectives from a biological point of view but we now want to tell them okay go out and look at this issue from a historical perspective. We are not trying to transform a biologist into a historian but have them acquire a basic competence of how other issues face a common issue.”

For Dr. Studnicki-Gizberts and his colleagues, having a multi-disciplinary approach is a skill that will be used outside of the field study. "It is the skill set you need to be effective as professionals or future researchers," he says. "You need to know how things work from a multitude of different angles.”    

By applying this skill set, students are able to get a first hand understanding of how neo-tropical environments work. At the end of the field study,  students participate in a symposium, presenting their findings to a group of professionals and community members of the environment. Notably, language becomes a main aspect of the experience throughout the field study whether that be conversing with locals or presenting at the symposium Spanish. Students involved come with at least a basic fluency of Spanish, the field semester providing the students with a way to converse in the language while studying the environment.  

Indigeneity and PFSS 

"Indigenous knowledge plays a significant role in the knowledge exchange that occurs during the study, as students glean insights from diverse groups on seemingly basic yet complex concepts such as time," notes Dr. Studnicki-Gizbert.

He emphasizes the use of academic reflection journals to document students' learning from these interactions. 

"In the classroom, students receive theoretical interpretations of various cultural and knowledge frameworks, but there's a transformative moment when they witness these concepts in action," he adds. Thus the field study bridges the common gap between theory and life experience. Students get to live in the environment of different Indigenous groups and respect the ways in which they work with the environment in Panama. Primarily, students learn based off of what the local communities ask for, creating a dialogue between them. 

The Student Experience 

Shani Laskin, a third year student majoring in Environment and International Development with a Minor in Organismal Biology, is one of the students participating in the Winter 2024 Panama Field Study semester. An opportunity that she was hoping to participate in since her first year at McGil,  Shani speaks highly of the experience.

“I came in not knowing really what to expect," she says. "Before going on the field study I had just done beginner intensive Spanish the semester before and kinda threw myself into this amazing environment.”

“While I was not sure what to expect I had high expectations and they definitely have been met," she says. 

During the field study students live together in hostels as they move across Panama. “One of the biggest surprises was that we are a cohort of 22 and it actually works out,” says Shani. 

The environment provides the students with a great way to make new friends within similar fields of interest. Shani provides a firsthand insight into the opportunities and activities she has gotten to participate in during the field study. “Before this I had never taken a history or an agriculture course nor really experienced field work, but the environment along with the last month internship course really let me explore all that the field study has to offer," she adds. 

One of the most exciting aspects of the field study for Shani was the opportunity to work with a host organization.

“For the whole month of March, we were working with this organization called CIEPS, Centro Internacional de Estudios Políticos y Sociales," she says. "They have a project looking into food security across Panama, Guatemala and Nicaragua and we were working on the Panama section of the project specifically within a semi-autonomous Indigenous region of Panama.”  Shani got to interview and understand the experiences of the local communities in the region and the project allowed her to later write a report based off her findings. 

Ultimately, the field study from the student and professor perspective is a great way to apply theoretical knowledge in real-life situations. Notably, applications for the Winter2025 year are open until April 22, 2024. To learn more and possibly participate visit the PFSS website:  or the direct application requirement page:

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