For 14 straight years, Robert Sites has led University of Missouri students to Thailand for an educational study abroad experience focused on biodiversity and conservation. The 3-week program, which takes place over winter break, coincides with Thailand’s dry season – the best time of the year to be in the country for biodiversity and conservation projects.
When Sites, a professor of entomology in the Division of Plant Sciences, joined the Thailand Study Abroad program in 2001, it was tough for him to imagine the experience turning into what it would eventually become.
“I got involved with the CAFNR Thailand study abroad program in 2001, when Bill Kurtz (professor emeritus of forestry) was leading the 6-week summer program, from mid-May through all of June, to the deep south of Thailand to study tropical agricultural systems,” Sites said. “When I joined, I added a unit on biodiversity during which we spent a few nights in a primitive guest house in Ton Nga Chang Wildlife Sanctuary.
“I ran the program again in 2002 with only five students. Following that year, a few health issues hit the global scene, including SARS and bird flu, so this combined with 9/11 took its toll on student enrollment. If I was going to continue the program, I had to do something to change it to meet student interests and needs.”
Sites’ redesign worked right away, as the first year he advertised the revamped program, in 2006, more than 50 students applied. He’s now taken nearly 230 Mizzou students to Thailand.
“Study abroad experiences give the students a sense of their place in the world,” Sites said. “As all topics and areas of study become increasingly global, it’s grounding for our students to experience circumstances other than that within which they’ve grown up. If all you’ve experienced is Missouri or the United States, you are less able to understand the thoughts and points of view of people from other cultures. Breaking down that conceptual barrier is critical to enable your ability to understand and accept other perspectives that sometimes are radically different from your own.”
With continued success, Sites was one of two Mizzou professors to earn the inaugural MU Study Abroad Teaching Excellence Award. The award recognizes the exceptional and meaningful work carried out by faculty in global teaching, student learning and curriculum design for MU faculty-led study abroad programs.
“This program is one of CAFNR’s most popular study abroad programs due to Dr. Sites’ infectious enthusiasm and passion for all aspects of Thailand: wildlife, nature, food, culture, people, language, and in short, the Thai way of life,” said Bryan Garton, senior associate dean and director of academic programs. “If a student mentions Thailand in Dr. Sites’ presence, they are in for an engaging conversation about why Thailand is the best place in the world to travel.”
The Thailand Study Abroad program evolves each year. Sites has done previous research in Thailand, giving him numerous connections throughout the country. Combined with advising several Thai graduate students who have returned to Thailand, Sites has a variety of options for students who sign up for the program.
“I know faculty members and their students at quite a few Thai universities,” Sites said. “This network of contacts throughout the country provide the local logistics and expertise to be able to offer unparalleled hands-on experiences studying mangroves, tropical forests, gibbons, birds, elephants, clouded leopards and coral reefs, all while being completely immersed in the warm, inviting Thai culture.”
The Thailand Study Abroad program consists of a 3-credit fall semester course at MU, followed by the 3-credit in-country experience in Thailand. While the program is open to all majors, the preference is given to CAFNR students, especially those whose majors are most closely associated with fisheries and wildlife.
“The fall course is designed to familiarize students with much of what they will experience when in Thailand regarding conservation, biodiversity and culture,” Sites said.
The program schedule is overflowing with experience and activities all over the country.
“When in Thailand, we begin by experiencing Thai culture in Bangkok and then travel to the Samut Songkram Mangrove Conservation Area where we kayak through mangroves and plant mangrove saplings,” Sites said. “New Year’s Eve is spent in a nearby village with a floating market, at which we are the only non-Thais. On New Year’s Day, we start the New Year by giving alms to a monk and then travel by the World War II Death Railway train to Kanchanaburi to spend two days and visit a large elephant sanctuary. We then return to Bangkok and travel north to experience the ruins of the ancient capital at Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then we travel to Khao Yai National Park where we stay for four days while studying gibbon and elephant ecology and conservation, with on-site explanation and field observations led by researchers from two universities in Bangkok. While at Khao Yai, we are led by two ornithologists from a Thai university while we bird watch, including observation of several species of hornbills. From here we travel to the Phi Phi Islands where we partner with a dive operator who is well known for his reef conservation and education program. We participate in coral reef rehabilitation conservation projects, which we conduct with PhD biologists from the Phuket Marine Biological Center.”
The MU Study Abroad Teaching Excellence Award comes with a $1,000 deposit toward the awardees’ professional development account. Sites is using part of that money, combined with contributions from close family friends of Wayne McDaniel, to purchase a memorial granite bench for McDaniel that will be placed at his farm in Ralls County. McDaniel passed away earlier this year and was a co-instructor of the Thailand Study Abroad program. McDaniel was an associate director of the Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations at MU.