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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is the unit of the Smithsonian Institution that was established to further our understanding of tropical nature and its significance to the world at large; to train students in tropical research; and to promote conservation by making the public aware of the beauty, importance, and fragility of natural environments in the tropics.

STRI is located in the Republic of Panama where it maintains a series of facilities at various locations. These facilities primarily support the research of STRI’s permanent staff of 35, visiting scientists and students (approximately 400 per year), but also make possible STRI’s education and conservation mission.

Public programs of STRI include academic programs for undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists from around the world, and public programs for members of the community, as well as visitors to Panama. The academic program has existed for many years and is highly integrated into the research program of the scientific staff The outreach programs to the community have expanded substantially in recent years. These programs interpret STRI’s research to the general public — primarily school groups — and promote conservation of the natural environments studied by researchers at STRI.

STRI maintains two on-going public programs that are aimed at students. Docents lead educational visits to our Marine Exhibition Center (MEC) on Culebra Point (a coastal area) off Panama City’s Amador Causeway and day-visits to the Smithsonian’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, a tropical forest reserve in the Panama Canal. On occasion, we also offer docent-led educational visits to our Tupper Center Exhibit Hall in Panama City, where we are currently showing an exhibit on the insects of Panama.

We recruit our docents by advertising in the local universities and by word of mouth. Most of our docents are biology students or biology graduates, and we do have various nationalities represented. We aspire to have bilingual docents (Spanish – English), but they are difficult to find.

We provide initial training to our docents usually on the content of the tour or exhibit and on methods of dealing with our various audiences. The themes and messages of our tours are presented at the training sessions but docents tend to personalize their tours, and some choose certain themes over others. Teachers that bring groups receive evaluation forms that they complete and return. Occasionally, we ask an outside professional to evaluate a specific program.

Our greatest challenge is how to break away from the traditional methods of teaching and make our program more participatory and experiential, to provide students with an opportunity for discovery and analysis. Our docents seem to greatly enjoy their work. They draw the greatest satisfaction from opening their students’ eyes to a whole “new world.” Although Panama is a tropical coastal country, we have students at our Marine Exhibition Center who have never seen sand. Panama has 30% of its territory as forest, yet for many student visitors that take guided tours on Barro Colorado Island this is their first educational experience in a tropical forest.

As one of the few institutions that offer informal educational programs in environmental/science education in Panama, we strive to strengthen our programs and to make them relevant and educational for our visitors. This year, we received approximately 60,000 visitors; approximately 20,000 take part in the educational programming.

Our educational programs are relatively new and growing. We have found in The Docent Educator an excellent resource that addresses many issues that are relevant to our work. We find many new ideas and techniques that we can adapt to our specific situation and that help us improve our docent programs.

Georgina de Alba is the coordinator of visitor services for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama.

de Alba, Georgina. “Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 6-7.


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