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NEON intern program in P.R. aims to build next generation of scientists

An educational program led by the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (known as NEON) is helping students in Puerto Rico hone-in on a specific scientific field by exposing them to a broad array of experiences in the environmental and ecological sciences.

Yamil Toro, field operations manager for the NEON’s scientific field sites in Puerto Rico, said a student might be studying to be an agronomist, but unless they are exposed to field experiences studying flora, fauna, aquatics, laboratory management, or entomology, they might not know that they have an interest in those fields, or that career opportunities are available.

That’s what three different internship programs he guides each year are intended to do.

“It really opens up their vision not only to what they like to study but it also reinforces the concept that these are all intertwined in the larger ecosystem,” Toro said.

The NEON program, managed by Battelle, is a continental-scale ecological observation facility that collects and provides open data from 81 field sites across the United States that characterize and quantify how the nation’s ecosystems are changing.

The data will contribute to a better understanding and more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecosystems and how society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues. The data is available for anyone to use.

There are three main complementary internship programs. One is with the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez called STARTNOW, or Student Training in Agricultural Research Techniques by Novel Occupational Workshop, is a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institutes of Food and Agriculture competitively funded program for Hispanic-serving institutions.

This grant specifically targets the education of undergraduate and graduate students of Hispanic background at four-year universities to equip them with the knowledge base and expertise needed to lead and succeed in the continuously evolving agricultural field.

The students carry out six- and eight-week professional or research internships in USDA or similar government labs and research laboratories, respectively. The field sites in Puerto Rico are part of NEON’s Atlantic Neotropical ecoclimatic domain and the field staff there host one intern every summer, he said.

A second program is with Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios in Mayagüez, where students will participate in the Veterinary Technician degree, which requires that they have experience, and integrate knowledge and skills to be applied in real situations.

A third internship program, which wrapped up late last year, is called the Lajas Valley Watershed Project. It was a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency externally funded project with the UPR’s Agricultural Sciences School.

The participants were high school and college students who participated as separate groups. The groups discussed and were exposed to topics related to watershed management, water quality, sources of pollution, and community organization, using the Lajas Valley basin as a study site. Conferences, workshops, and field trips to NEON’s terrestrial field site co-located at the Lajas Experimental Station were offered through professionals and professional organizations.

The workshops were focused on providing environmental science education, under an experiential-based learning format. This format allows individuals to explore environmental issues, solve problems in a participatory manner and take action to improve the environment. The program teaches that environmental education is much more than information about the environment.

The goal is to teach individuals to weigh various points of view regarding the issues through critical thinking to improve decision-making skills, NEON officials said.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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