Expanding Across Borders: The Experience of McGill University Students with Fundación Pro Eco Azuero, and their Impact Assessment of Iniciativas Escolares

Maranda y Paul en la estación de buces en la Ciudad de Panamá
Maranda and Paul at a bus stop in Panama City
Maranda y Paul con Kiera Morril, un ex integrante del cuerpo de paz
Maranda and Paul with Kiera Morrill, a former Peace Corps member in Bajo Corral

As COVID-19 began to spread at a horrific rate over the globe, the realization sunk into two college students that, indeed, their arrival to Los Santos would soon be followed by their departure. Yet again, COVID-19 rose up to play the role of the villain. With only 7 days in the workfield in the rural communities of Los Santos, the two McGill students Maranda Raskin and Paul Bent were forced to make a premature U-turn and return home.

However, this by no means meant a futile journey; their time in Los Santos, despite its short lifetime, bore fruit in the form of thoughtful claims and insights, neatly packaged and presented in their final report, “Assessing the Impact of Environmental Education Initiatives in Los Santos, Panamá: A Qualitative Study”.

Within their final report, they begin by delineating their analyses of literature pieces from which they derived frameworks for use in their qualitative assessment of the impact of Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero’s educational initiative “Iniciativas Escolares” on the participating students, but also the families of the students and the enveloping community that the students are an integral member of.

For example, they reference Nicole Ardoin and Alison Bowers’ paper titled “Environmental Education Outcomes for Conservation: A Systematic Review” and comment that Ardoin and Bowers’ paper “provides a framework to analyze impacts in two different ways; direct ecological impacts and attitude or behavioral changes”(Raskan and Bent, 16). More importantly, Raskin and Bent tie this concept back to Iniciativas Escolares: “It may be beneficial for future researchers to measure the impacts of the Iniciativas Escolares by quantitatively measuring the amount of trees planted within the last ten years and their survival rates in the communities and by qualitatively measuring environmental knowledge acquired and shared as well as individual behavioral changes”(17).

Furthermore, Raskin and Bent points to Ardoin and Bowers’ framework of four tenets that symbolize an effective environmental education program. 1) A topic selected with local focus. 2) Forming partnerships with local scientists and natural resource managers at local nonprofit organizations. 3) Incorporating projects of action. 4) Intentionality and creativity and thorough reporting of program outcomes (16-17).

In response to this framework, Raskin and Bent aptly point out FPEA’s qualifying characteristics; FPEA maintains a local focus on the Azuero Peninsula and specifically the strategic ecological corridor from the south of the Los Santos province to the protected reserve of La Tronosa, they possess close relations with local scientists, resource managers, and local government members, and their projects of action entail reforestation initiatives (16). The fourth tenet, however, is where Raskan and Bent’s research come in – they hypothesize that “a completed impact assessment would reveal both positive direct ecological improvements and heightened awareness of environmental issues within the communities in which the Iniciativas were taught”, since an impact assessment would entail a thorough reporting of program outcomes(17).

Their impact assessment is thus what they spent 7 days in the workfield doing. Although they were only able to visit two out of the seven originally planned locations, they were able to conduct thirteen insightful interviews with the community members in Nuario and Bajo Corral. To focus on their three objectives of measuring the impact that Iniciativas Escolares has on the students, and their respective families and community, they sought to interview members of each respective audience group. They describe that, “Four were conducted with students graduated from the environmental initiatives, four with mothers of students who had participated in the program, one with a relative to a participating student, one with each community Peace Corps and one with each community teacher”, with each community referring to Bajo Corral and Nuario being the two communities (29).

Through these interviews, Raskan and Bent uncovered sentiments that hinted towards the deep-rooted impact that Iniciativas Escolares have had on the students and their respective communities and families. However, this statement does not come without its caveats; Raskan and Bent point to the long-standing traditional view of cattle ranching and deforestation as the reigning champion of Los Santos’ environmental view.

Eduvina, the maestra of Bajo Corral explains that the information presented by Iniciativas Escolares often contradicts what has been seen and taught in the homes of these students all their lives: ““Ellos llevan el mensaje a la casa porque ellos aprenden cosas que no se deben hacer y que se corrigen. Por ejemplo, ellos hacen la quema, no deben ser porque se contamine el ambiente y todos esos mensajes ellos los comparten con sus padres en la casa””(33). Additionally, Renata, a high school student who graduated from Nuario primary school explains that her parents do not share the same opinions as her, since she values environment care and animal care (34).

However, Raskan and Bent demonstrate that there are certainly signs of change, learning and growth occurring as a result of Iniciativas Escolares. One particular example that they provide is from a mother of a student named Sarita. She voices out ““La idea de este proyecto es de sembrar más árboles y no tanto para el mono, el mono no necesita pero es más para nosotros humanos que necesitan porque nuestra planeta está muy deteriorada”(35). Her testimony highlights the introspective impacts that Iniciativas Escolares has induced, since she demonstrates the skill to see beyond traditional custom and extrapolate a grander meaning about the necessity of protecting a deteriorating planet – all from a primary school education initiative that her kids partook in.

Sarita further comments on her change in conscience due to this project initiative: ““Antes no tenía un amor tan profundo para el medio ambiente como el que tengo ahora, mi versión cambio sobre eso. Antes mis abuelos estaban por quemar y tabar. A través este proyecto, tome consciencia: no más destrucción, hay que generar vida. Yo ahora me meti a fondo en esto también, yo no voy a destruir mas a mi madre naturaleza, yo voy a dar algo a ella, a ayudarla, porque es mi planeta y la que queda para mis nietos”(40).

The students themselves also exhibit the knowledge they’ve gained through the initiative: similar to how whispering that occurs conversationally can be very loud in the collective, the brief quotes from the youth dispersed throughout Raskan and Bent’s report culminate to a grand, loud message. “‘Aprendimos mucho: medio ambiente, los monos, y los animales’”(38). “‘Aprendí muchas cosas sobre cómo cuidar los árboles, los animales’”(38). “‘Tratar de tener cuidado al medio ambiente, los animales’”(38). “‘Tenemos que cuidar los árboles porque los animales están en peligro de extinción’”(38). Altogether, it is an easy deduction for Raskan and Bent to say that Iniciativas Escolares has had a lasting impact on the primary recipients: the students. Through interviews with Peace Corps and teachers, Raskan and Bent were able to buttress the statement that Iniciativas Escolares has had an impact on the communities that surround the students as well.

Raskan and Bent, despite their shortened stay, have been able to conduct telling interviews that support and amplify the impact of Iniciativas Escolares on three primary groups: the youth, their parents and families, and the community members who they live together with. Inspired by the framework provided in Ardoin and Bowers’ article, they sought to execute a thorough impact assessment (in order to provide evidence for the fourth criteria of the framework) of the Iniciativas Escolares program in seven communities in order to delineate the effectiveness of this particular environment education initiative. One can only imagine the potential of in-depth data analysis that has had to be forfeited due to the viral pandemic; however, the work that Raskan and Bent conducted within their stay certainly ushers in the idea that based on their findings, Iniciativas Escolares is an environment education program that has met the criteria of effectiveness, especially given the various ways in which challenges to the preexisting norm of environmental negligence have succeeded.

Fittingly, Maranda explains in a personal reflection: “In reflecting back on my experiences being in the communities of Nuario and Bajo Corral, what has stuck with me the most is just how friendly and kind everyone we talked to was as well as the sheer amount of passion people had for learning about environmental protection and improving their communities”.

Written By: David Hwang


Bibliography

  • Ardoin, Nicole, and Alison Bowers. “Environmental Education Outcomes for Conservation: A Systematic Review.” Biological Conservation. Elsevier, November 14, 2019
  • Raskan, Maranda and Bent, Paul. “Assessing the Impact of Environmental Education Initiatives in Los Santos, Panamá: A Qualitative Study.” Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero. 2020.

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