Out in the fields

The best course I’ve taken at UTM didn’t happen at UTM.

I travelled to Mexico in August 2010 for ENV331: “International Environmental Sustainability—Mexico”, a field course for which we studied the Lake Zapotlan basin. I was one of 11 students to go to the lake near the city of Ciudad Guzmán that year, about an hour and half south of Guadalajara by car. The lake was the location for the water sports of the 2011 Pan-American Games.

I met with the other UTM students at Pearson in the morning of the early August day on which we left for Guadalajara. I only knew a few of them when we took off, but by the end of the two weeks of living and staying together, we had developed a strong bond.

ENV331 is a half-credit fall course with fieldwork in August and analysis and presentations during the semester. This year, the tuition for the course is $1,500, with a heavily subsidized travel cost. Part of the course was a week of fieldwork in Mexico alongside students from the University of Guadalajara’s Centro Universitario del Sur (CUSUR) campus in Ciudad Guzmán.

The lake is wedged between the sister cities of Guzmán and Gómez Farías, and is overlooked by hills and Nevado de Colima, an inactive volcano.

Harvey Shear, a professor in UTM’s geography department, proposed the course in 2006 to Brian Branfireun, then acting chair of the department. The course was offered for the first time in 2008 after an agreement was signed between the University of Guadalajara and UTM. Shear is also the instructor, and travels to Mexico with the students.

On the trip, Shear spoke in Spanish to help us exchange currency, translated conversations between us and our driver, and explained menu items to us. We stayed at a forestry centre during our time in Ciudad Guzmán, and at a hotel during our break week in Guadalajara.

As part of the application process, students in third year apply with a statement of interest, a list of relevant experience, and an interview with Shear. Students from any program can apply, but the hands-on experience is particularly relevant to the theory in environmental science, geography, biology, chemistry, and economics programs, according to Shear.

In the interview, Shear asked me about my background and how it would be helpful to the work in Mexico, what I wanted to gain from this course, and my level of comfort working in team environments.

The course has two components: a socioeconomic component involving the social, cultural, and economic aspects of the basin, and a fieldwork component involving analyzing the lake’s water quality, pollution sources, and fish populations, and understanding the process of sewage treatment at a nearby plant.

Our group took and analyzed samples of the water from the treatment plant whose output went into the lake to see how pure it was, went by boat to different parts of the lake to take and analyze samples to see how pollution levels had increased, dissected the two major types of fish in the lake to see how the pollution had affected their reproductive organs, and interviewed fishermen to understand how smaller fish populations had affected economic activity around the lake.


In the lab at CUSUR, we analyzed how many bacterial colonies sprung up in different regions. Our days would usually start at 7 in the morning and go until 11 at night. Our evenings were a mix of discussion about the day’s progress, Mexican music, banda dancing, and tequila.

During our break in Mexico, we visited a resort town by the Pacific Ocean, a crocodile reserve, and a tequila factory.

After the trip, I visited Shear in his office and saw two group photos of students from my batch on his desk cabinets above the computer screen. I asked him what he enjoyed most about the course.

He told me that he most enjoyed watching the students interact with the CUSUR students, and watching them learn and grow over the course of the trip. Some students had never travelled outside of Canada or on an airplane, and he enjoyed seeing them get to step out of their comfort zone and even learn enough Spanish to get by in Mexico.

In 2011 and 2012, the course was cancelled due to low enrolment, said Shear. He said that it may also have been due to security concerns in Mexico, but added that Guzmán is a very safe, rural area. All the students are escorted, usually by Mexican students or faculty. This year, the students will be staying at a CUSUR campus residence rather than at the forestry centre.

“You don’t need to speak Spanish for the course,” said Shear. “If you do, that’s great. But you just need to be open to a new experience.”

I asked him what he thought students take from the course, and he replied that it was a better sense of what they want to do with their lives. Of the 27 students, almost half of them went on to graduate school in science programs. If they didn’t have that vision before, he said, or if they were still confused about the decision, this course gave them a strong indication of whether they wanted to continue in that field.

“The course is really for learning about yourself,” he concluded.

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