Students Experience Field-Based Learning in Africa

Tom Wilson points out the water storing adaptations of this caudiciform (fat-stemmed plant) just outside the capital Windhoek in central Namibia. Its skin peels to protect it from high transpiration rates, extreme fluctuations in temperature and sunburn. (Photo by Michaela Brumbaugh)
Tom Wilson points out the water storing adaptations of this caudiciform (fat-stemmed plant) just outside the capital Windhoek in central Namibia. Its skin peels to protect it from high transpiration rates, extreme fluctuations in temperature and sunburn. (Photo by Michaela Brumbaugh)

An innovative course offered by the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and UA Study Abroad, allows students to experience the unique landscape of Namibia, Africa, while learning how the arid African lands are strikingly similar to the students' own Sonoran Desert home.

Students in the Desert Ecology and Conservation Biology class live in tents, pitched on the ground and on top of trucks, in remote locations all over Namibia, Africa, which is located just above South Africa and below Angola, with the Atlantic Ocean along its west border and Botswana to its east.

They spend around 45 days touring the country and learning about its diverse ecosystems, including the oceanic coast, dunes of the Namib Desert and ephemeral river systems. Ephemeral rivers in Namibia have above-ground water flowing for 15 to 20 days out of the year.

The unique aspects of Namibian ecosystems provide research material for the students' coursework, which consists of a project, observational study and field journal maintained during the adventure.      

Tom Wilson, associate professor of practice in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, has taught this study abroad course every summer since 2009 with colleague Hans-Werner Herrmann, associate research scientist in the School of Plant Sciences.  

The arid land of Namibia shares remarkable ecological characteristics with the Sonoran Desert. In fact, Wilson said, the republic "demonstrates convergent evolution on the other side of the world."

According to Wilson, students are "seeing plants and animals that have come up with similar solutions to environmental challenges like heat and lack of water but are totally unrelated to what you would see in Tucson, Arizona." The spiny Namibian plant hoodia, for instance, looks like cactus from the Sonoran Desert but belongs to a separate family.

Wiritten by Michaela Brumbaugh, a junior majoring in plant sciences and minoring in environmental sciences. Brumbaug is interning with CALS Communications and Technologies.

Read the rest of this November 12, 2013 UANews article at the link below.

Date released: 
Nov 13 2013
Contact: 
Thomas Wilson