Panama global seminar

Students tackle water quality in Panama

CSE Global Seminar combines cultural exposure with research experience

Access to safe and clean water is a concern faced by many. In fact, it's one of the five Grand Challenges identified by the University of Minnesota and one of 14 top problems singled out by the National Academy of Engineering. To better understand the impact of water quality on human life—and offer possible solutions to tackle this critical challenge—a group of College of Science and Engineering (CSE) students ventured into the Panamanian wilderness.

Led by analytical chemistry professors Edgar Arriaga and Kyle Bantz, the recent weeklong, two-credit CSE Global Seminar brought students to different communities within Panama and its Bocas Del Toro islands. There, the group got to know local residents and spent a lot of time taking water samples, as well as analyzing attributes like pH level, turbidity, and bacteria presence.

“We realized that our students don’t usually have the opportunity to do measurements in the field,” Arriaga said. “So, we wanted to give them that opportunity.”

Natalie Pfann, a sophomore studying chemistry, said the fieldwork was eye-opening. 

“We hear about filed blanks, meta data, statistical analysis, etc., but we usually work with fake data, or just numbers from a textbook,” she explained.

“Being involved in the field work was not only practice and review of these topics, it enhanced my understanding and reiterated their importance,” Pfann said.

Although the research experience proved invaluable, she said another important part of this seminar was interacting with the local communities and being able to directly see the impact of poor water quality. Part of the CSE Global Seminar included doing demographic surveys and interviewing residents about their views on water. 

“It’s one thing to see data and hear about what is in the water, but the ability to put a face with those [negative] effects makes it more meaningful,” Pfann said. “I know that their water, and whatever is in it, has a direct impact on their lives.”

The CSE students also gave presentations to local children on the water cycle and water safety, navigating the language barrier by acting out processes like condensation and precipitation with their bodies.

This kind of cultural exposure helped the students to not only understand the impact of their work but the reality of living in a developing country. Because these villages are so secluded, sometimes taking samples meant trekking nearly a half mile through dense rainforests to find a water source.

“It was definitely eye-opening to see how people live relying 100 percent on rain water,” said Samantha Kroc, a junior majoring in chemistry. “I think you definitely get a different perspective of life compared to the U.S. Even people who have traveled outside their own state in the U.S. still don’t have a good idea of what life is like for everyone [in other countries].”

Panama global seminar zip line
The students enjoyed a zipline tour in the rainforest while visiting Panama.

Professors Arriaga and Bantz said they chose Panama because of its potential for research in health and on water quality. The country had been in drought before the seminar, and many residents had resorted to drinking desalinated ocean water from a giant tank the government had brought in. 

Bantz said it was beneficial for the students to witness this—and to come up with clean water solutions in a country with less resources than the United States. 

“You can propose amazing things to do, but the people who need it the most might not have access to the money and to the technology,” she said.

“I think taking students down to an area to see where the need is and then proposing a solution based on what they see and what’s available down there might be more impactful than just dreaming up what’s happening,” Bantz added.

The CSE group also learned about ongoing water conservation efforts in Panama at CATHALAC, a Latin American sustainable development organization that helps Panamanians deal with these issues. 

“Personally, [this trip] gave me some insight to the opportunities available to me with this degree,” Pfann said.

“The work we were doing had a greater purpose than just collecting data to get a good grade on a lab report,” Pfann said. “It has the potential to impact real people.”

When the students returned home, they analyzed the data they collected. This culminated in a research presentation and individual proposals from the students on how they can combat the issues they observed in Panama. 

Learn more about CSE Global Seminars

Story by Olivia Hultgren

If you’d like to support student experiences at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.