Alumni Outlook Magazine



For 10 days in January, a group of UW-Stout students experienced a classroom unlike any they had ever seen before. It was filled with birds, plants, animals and marine life of all shapes, sizes and colors. Virtually all of it was new to them.

This classroom had no walls: They were studying the natural wonders of Belize and Guatemala in Central America.

“There was literally a new creature in every crevice and under every rock, even in the ocean,” said Theresa Olson, an applied science major. “On a daily walk around our island, I lifted a conch shell out of the water, and an octopus was staring back at me.”

A total of 17 students accompanied the instructor, Michael Bessert, an assistant professor of biology. It’s the first time Natural History of the Neotropics was offered. Bessert hopes to make it an annual class during Winterm.

“Experiential learning is powerful, particularly in a foreign country when students are taken out of their comfort zone,” said Bessert, who was accompanied by Charles Bomar, a biology professor and director of the applied science program.

Students traveled dirt back roads by bus, boated on a crocodile-inhabited river, snorkeled next to a giant stingray, went deep into an ancient cave to see Mayan ruins and stayed on a mangrove island that had no running water, to mention a few of their experiences.

“I can easily list over 100 new species of animals I saw,” Olson said. “I learned more than I ever thought possible in such a short amount of time.”

As part of the course, Bessert required each student to document 50 tropical species of birds, plants or animals. At first they thought it was a tough assignment. Bessert knew otherwise. “They got that in the first day,” he said.

Josh Costa and other students in the UW-Stout class snorkeled in the barrier reef off the coast of Belize. UW-Stout student Theresa Olson holds a marine toad while in Belize. The frigatebird, a type of sea bird, is one of many species of birds students saw.