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Nothing helps students learn and understand a subject more than hands-on experience.

Unlike dry theory and facts, what students learn in labs and in the field won’t soon be forgotten after final exams.

Experiential learning is the centerpiece of the Harrisburg University experience. It’s what transported Olivia Otstot and Alyson Marshall 1,500 miles away from home to the Cayman Islands, where they assisted with research aimed at saving the endangered Blue Iguana.

The Blue Iguana, who call the Cayman Islands home, is a rock iguana that has suffered a drastic population decline due to invasive species of common green iguanas, domestic feral cats, and two types of rats introduced to the popular Caribbean resort destination. The threats posed by these invasive species led to the Blue Iguana being named the most endangered lizard species in the world.

By paying locals to help eradicate the green iguanas, the Cayman Island government was able to remove 1 million of the invasive lizards. Still, 200,000 more elusive green iguanas still exist in less accessible sections of the islands.

HU Lends a Hand

Backed by two rounds of Presidential Research Grants from HU, Professors Albert Sarvis and Christine Proctor, co-directors of Harrisburg University’s Center for Applied Environmental and Geospatial Technology, stepped in to help locate the remaining green iguanas and monitor the recovering Blue Iguana population through the use of drones and remote camera traps.

HU’s Center for Applied Environmental and Geospatial Technology employs as many as 10 students from both the University’s Environmental Science and Sustainability and Geospatial Technology programs and provides hardware and software resources to conduct a wide variety of environmental and geospatial projects. Its primary mission is to provide experiential learning opportunities for HU students.  Presidential Research Grants, such as those used to conduct the Blue Iguana study, can be executed using the center’s resources and full-time staff oversight of undergraduate students.

Field Work

In January of 2020, Otstot, a senior majoring in Geospatial Technology, and Marshall, who graduated from HU last year with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Sustainability, accompanied both Sarvis and Proctor to Grand Cayman to assist in the setup of remote camera trap grids and collect high resolution habitat imagery using two different drones. They also assisted with post collection data processing.

“I really enjoyed being able to take part in this project because I got to learn so much not only from a GIS side but also an environmental side,” Otstot said. “I’ve had several interviews and in each of them they ask questions about the Blue Iguana research mentioned in my resume. Dealing with the data from the trip is one thing but being able to go and see how the data is collected really made this project special.”

“As a GIS student, we typically just get the data and a list of expectations on how to display said data. This project opened my eyes in so many ways. How they collect data, why they collect the data. Where they collect the data. I feel like being able to see that side of the project really made it easy for me to transition from field work to GIS work. Being able to wrap my head around the project as a whole really aided how I would handle any issues or questions that would arise later in my research.”

Marshall also valued the experience.

“Taking part in that project was a truly amazing and valuable experience.  I was able to gain exposure to new cultures, connect with a variety of different people, and venture outside my comfort zone,” she said.  “Throughout my time at Harrisburg University, I participated in field work throughout Pennsylvania.  On this trip, I was able to take part in field work in a completely different environment than I was used to; hiking in warm island weather while carrying gear through harsh terrain.  Being able to travel and take part in this opportunity provided a different view of my field of study.  It was amazing to be able participate first-hand, providing a more varied perspective than simply learning about it in a classroom setting.”

Going Forward

Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, work to save the Blue Iguana continues. With help from Proctor and Sarvis, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment were able to explore and develop new methodologies and tools to assist with ongoing efforts to monitor invasive species eradication and the blue iguana recovery.

Work on HU’s side continues as well, and other University departments are interested in collaborating to support the effort. For example, the computer science and analytics departments are interested in finding ways to use technology at hand to efficiently process the more than 420,000 images the HU team captured during the first round of camera trapping.

The team was recently awarded an $18,000 grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to monitor the blue iguanas recovery area on a larger scale via camera trapping to gain a better understanding of the threat posed by feral cats and invasive rat species.

“This research has been gaining international recognition resulting in invitations for HU faculty to present and provide workshops at several conferences,” Sarvis said. “This work has also resulted in the award of two external grants and will serve as a pilot study for additional grant applications. And as one of the most endangered lizards in the world, this work will help us monitor the success of the Blue Iguana reintroduction effort.”

“This project has provided Harrisburg University students many opportunities such as research experience, travel abroad opportunities, and industry skill building,” Proctor added. “Using technology, statistical modeling, and on-the-ground field work, students are developing skills that will serve them well in their future careers.”


Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private nonprofit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717-901-5146 or email, Follow on Twitter (@HarrisburgU) and Facebook (

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