Students Gain Rare Opportunity to Study Conservation Efforts Up Close

Posted: January 28, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

red panda at conservation center
A red panda peers out curiously from its enclosure at the National Zoo’s 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., one of the premier conservation research facilities in the world. An inaugural class of a dozen Mason students will spend the semester there learning about conservation issues.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

The clouded leopard looked up with faint interest from the sunny perch she was napping on to see what the movement was. The red pandas continued to munch on their freshly cut bamboo, paying little attention to all the activity on this winter morning.

Throughout the winter break, contractors were busy renovating a building on the grounds of the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Va., where starting last week the first class enrolled in the new Smithsonian Mason Semester.

Amid the new drywall, paint and fixtures, workers converted offices into sleeping rooms and updated the meeting spaces. By the time students checked in to the newly renovated facility, there would also be a recreation/work-out space and a computer lab, and a resident advisor and several faculty members would be living on site.

The Start of Something Big

The Smithsonian Mason Semester is a 16-credit integrated learning community based at the National Zoo’s 3,200-acre site, one of the premier conservation research facilities in the world. A part of the Smithsonian Institution, CRC is internationally recognized for its work and professional training programs in conservation.

As part of this learning community, Mason students get to work alongside some of the foremost research scientists and conservation practitioners, live adjacent to some of the most extraordinary species in the world and gain access to many of the National Zoo’s facilities.

Tom Wood
Tom Wood

For Mason alumnus and faculty member Tom Wood, the launch of the first Smithsonian Mason Semester is the culmination of almost a decade of dreaming, negotiating, and hard work. As a doctoral student, Wood, now the director of Mason’s new Center for Conservation Studies, spent several years working and conducting research at the center with fellow Environmental Science and Public Policy student Steve Monfort. Both have maintained their connection to the center. For years, Wood has been taking Mason students from Mason’s New Century College to CRC over spring break for a short version of this course. Monfort is now the CRC’s associate director for research and has been instrumental in helping the plan become a reality.

Taking a Holistic Approach

During the semester, the inaugural class of approximately 12 students will take an interdisciplinary approach to all things conservation. Not only will they be taking part in labs and course work on such topics as cryopreservation and gene banking, but they will also be looking at topics from a number of perspectives, including the ethics and economics of captive breeding, how international nongovernmental organizations work and methods for community-based conflict resolution.

“By integrating a basic knowledge of science with civic questions and responsibilities, we are trying to engage students in meaningful ways,” says Wood. “Too many of these students come from backgrounds where science involved memorizing facts and equations. They don’t see science as a creative process.”

To bring the readings, analysis, and case studies to life, CRC and Smithsonian researchers also will be teaching units throughout the semester, offering students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the life of a scientist. And Wood will strive to get the students outside and engaged in the environment at the center, which is adjacent to Shenandoah National Park.

“There is much evidence to suggest that students need to engage in their natural surroundings to be healthy, well-rounded citizens,” Wood says. “Unfortunately we have created an artificial indoor living style with modern conveniences that overwhelms too many people.”

Moving Forward

Long-range plans for the semester include growing the program to include not just Mason students, but students from across the country or around the world. Degree programs and professional certificates in conservation studies are also being drafted.

While other universities might offer a degree or concentration in conservation, Wood says few offer the multidisciplinary approach that the Smithsonian Mason Semester has taken. “We are looking to disseminate this approach nationally and expand our work with the Smithsonian and colleagues from many institutions.”

“We have a global obligation to look at species conservation,” says Provost Peter Stearns. “It is a key priority and one of the ways we can address problems that run the risk of escaping our control altogether.”

For more information, see

mountain view from conservation center
A serene mountain view from the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

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