Online graduate students connect in Todos Santos

people smiling
From Left: Master's students Kimberly Wynn, Norma Calvo, Katelyn Nyberg and Caleb Bonner in Todos Santos over winter break. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wynn)

Four online Master of Natural Resource Stewardship (MNRS) students from all corners of North America found connection and common ground in Baja California during their winter break field course.

Norma Calvo, Kimberly Wynn, Caleb Bonner and Katelyn Nyberg joined other university students and faculty members in January for the FW 373a Travel Abroad- Wildlife Ecology/Conservation course at the Colorado State University Todos Santos Center.

It was the fifth course offering, but the first time master’s students utilized it as an elective in their academic program. The curriculum covers a range of natural resource topics in a variety of marine and desert ecosystems, and educates students about wildlife management and successful conservation initiatives in the area.

“Having graduate students who are also professionals at different stages of their careers was very valuable,” said Paul Doherty, a course instructor and professor in the Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology department. “They were able to draw on their knowledge and experiences and find similarities in what was a new environment for many of them.”

cactus and trees
A cardón cactus forest in Baja California Sur. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wynn)
measuring tape and square on ground
Sampling Algae at La Duna Ecology Center, Baja California Sur. (Photo courtesy of Norma Calvo)

With 15 years of experience as a senior vegetation and wetlands ecologist in Alberta, Canada, Norma Calvo has worked in other North American ecosystems. These include boreal forests and riparian areas in the northern reaches of the province.

She regularly works with professionals from different industries and is currently working with an interdisciplinary team and coastal populations to restore salt marshes in British Columbia. She said the connection between natural resources and people was very apparent during the course.

“I really like to see how restoration and conservation are done in different communities,” Calvo noted. “We had the opportunity to get to know Baja California from a unique ecological and ecotourism perspective.”

Kimberly Wynn also appreciated this human element. She is currently an adjunct professor at the Colorado Mountain College Breckinridge campus. New bonds made within the course group and local communities left an impression on her.

“It was great to see how powerful human connection can be for change,” she explained. “I plan on having conversations with my own students about surrounding yourself with the right people, and how that energy can put really effective projects on the ground.”

rock formation in the ocean
Baja California coast (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Wynn)

She personally learned how an open dialogue can instill action. Conversations with a researcher at the Marine Turtle Research Center turned into a new partnership. With plane tickets in hand, Wynn and two other undergraduate students from the course will return to the center over spring break and continue to help with turtle habitat mapping and community outreach.

This community contact was the important takeaway for Caleb Bonner, a forestry consultant in western North Carolina. He works with private landowners on multi-generation properties in developing plans to sustainably manage forests on their lands.

“After talking to the guides and discussing conservation initiatives with the locals, it was clear that the most efficient way to start a movement or begin changing things for the better is through communication,” Bonner said.

It’s understandable that face-to-face communication was very important to these online students. After spending the last year and a half communicating solely through online discussion boards, this degree of separation quickly dissolved during the two-week field course. Now, they all said that advancing their relationships as colleagues will become much easier back on a screen.

“This semester, many of us are now in another online course together and it’s great feeling like I really know the people I’m working with,” Bonner affirmed.