Faculty Explore, Share Talents, Serve During Summer Break

CSM Professors Travel to Belize, Bolivia, Peru, Remote Appalachia to Teach, Help, Learn

College of Southern Maryland professors Paul Billeter, Dr. Laura Polk and Dr. Michael Walls traveled to Belize, Bolivia, Peru and remote Appalachia this summer to research and study, and provide service to communities outside of the region. As they welcome students back to college for the fall semester Sept. 2, they bring with them tales of experiences and adventures,and insights into their summer “vacations.”  

“There is a joy in exploring landscapes and cultures outside of our own. When you venture outside of your comfort-zone, that's when interesting things start to happen. You can't go out into the world and see people of diverse backgrounds living in environments vastly different from Southern Maryland and not come back with a new perspective. Travel is a component in higher education that should not be overlooked,” said Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Eileen Abel.


Coral Reef Education in Belize, Archaeology in Bolivia

Billeter developed a lifelong passion for the tropics as an undergraduate biology major and during a trip to Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, in 1968. As a CSM Biology and Physical Sciences Division professor since 1974, Billeter continues to learn about and explore the Caribbean region, and he shares his love for marine life and the tropics in the classroom and on travel study experiences each spring.

This summer, Billeter gave a presentation on the evolution of travel courses at the Conference on International Coral Reef Education at the Tropical Education and Research Center in San Pedro, Belize.  

“The conference brought together college professors who teach field biology courses focused on marine biology and coral reefs. My presentation focused on the evolution of travel courses in the Caribbean over the past 45 years and how I have internationalized my course to include case studies from Chile, Australia, Belize, the Maldives, the Line Islands, United Arab Emirates and Mexico.”

Billeter described how changes in technology have allowed student field research to evolve from simple projects observing fish behavior in the 1970s to current projects analyzing the feeding habits of invasive lionfish by studying the genomes of their stomach contents.

“A new experience that I might incorporate in my marine biology course involved research on saltwater crocodiles in the mangrove swamps. Conference participants worked with the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary in an on-going project monitoring the local crocodile population. We surveyed several specimens and caught one, tagged it and took a sample for DNA analysis,” said Billeter about the supplementary excursion designed to allow professors to evaluate this activity for their travel study programs.

Billeter also took in a course in Bolivia for professors offered by the University of Texas, Austin, led by Ed Barnhardt of the Maya Exploration Center. He studied the archaeology of the Lake Titicaca region and the Tiwanaku cultures that predated the Incas, and explored the biology of the world's largest and highest, at 12,000 feet, non-sand desert.

“We participated in the sunrise ceremony at Tiwanaku on the June solstice. Being present on June 21 meant that over nine days-I experienced every season-I left the U.S. in the spring, arrived in Bolivia in their fall, stayed into their winter and returned to the U.S. summer,” said Billeter.


Service and Learning with Scouts in Peru

Polk, who is the Health Sciences Division chair, traveled with 16 members of Charles County Girl Scout Troop 3129 to Peru for a 10-day cultural service trip.

“We learned a lot about Peruvian culture, tried many new foods and made some great new friends while visiting Lima, Machu Picchu and Cusco,” said Polk about the trip that was two years in the making. “We worked with a student travel company that specializes in Girl Scout tours to find a trip that focused deeply on the culture of one country, was someplace the girls thought they might never go again and where they could definitely provide service.”

Polk and the troop spent several days in the Sacred Valley working at a kindergarten in the small town of Ollantaytambo.

“A year ago the space was a corn field, but with the work of many volunteers there is now a building and space for activities for the children. The teens and leaders spent time building mud walls to make a sandbox, plastering the outdoor bathrooms, painting walls, making a window using glass bottles for the window pane, making shelves and working in the garden. Each volunteer group leaves a painted stone for the garden when they finish their volunteer projects.”

Following the service project, the troop flew to Puerto Maldonado where they rode up the Rio Madre de Dios to get to the Amazon Rain Forest.

“We spent two days exploring the ecosystem of the Amazon, seeing animals, insects and plants like the Caiman, leaf cutter ants, tarantulas and strangler trees. It is an experience that we will never forget,” said Polk.


Mission work through Appalachia Service Project

“Every summer, for the last 12 years, I spend one week working with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) in one of the assigned, most impoverished counties in the states of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky or Tennessee,” said Walls, Health Sciences assistant professor and dual admissions coordinator.

Walls, with eight other adult leaders from his church, takes about 25 teenagers on a trip to make homes warmer, safer and drier by repairing or replacing roofs and walls, building wheelchair ramps and fire escapes, digging trenches to channel mountain water from eroding foundations, installing bathrooms and insulating houses. The ASP repairs houses damaged by floods, heavy snowfall, tornadoes and hurricanes.

As a registered nurse, Walls provides care for all volunteers as well as ASP staff for the week he is there. Care needs range from insect stings and bites, cuts and bruises, sprains and fractures, sunburn and abdominal pain, to medical issues such as chest pain, blood glucose issues, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
“All the participants, especially the teenagers, learn how people in a completely different region of the country and those living under the poverty level live, work and deal with life's issues. For one week, youth are forced to 'survive' without their cell phones, TVs, iPads, computers and games. They learn how to help strangers deal with homes that are in severe degrees of disrepair, function as a cohesive work team, and to perhaps better appreciate their own homes and families. Everyone works hard from early morning until the early evening in the heat and rain, and in adverse conditions and environments,” said Walls.


To view a gallery of faculty summer vacation photos and captions, visit http://csmphoto.zenfolio.com/facultyexperiences.

This year's travel study program is offering trips to New Orleans, Belize and South Africa. For information, visit http://www.csmd.edu/ilc/travelstudy.html.

For information on CSM, visit www.csmd.edu.