Australia | Semester Abroad | Environmental Science | Marine Biology

Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology

Examine the ecological and cultural patterns, processes, and dynamics of Australia's two most diverse environments: the Wet Tropics Bioregion and the Great Barrier Reef.

This program explores the terrestrial and marine ecosystems of far North Queensland and the relationship of traditional and contemporary human cultures with the environment. You will interact with scientists and local experts from organizations such as the Lizard Island Research Station and the Wet Tropics Management Authority to gain a firsthand understanding of ongoing conservation efforts in an exceptionally diverse environment.

Major topics of study include:

  • The diversity of habitats and environments within the Wet Tropics Bioregion
  • Coral reef conservation and management issues
  • Aboriginal perspectives on the environment
  • Rainforest ecology and conservation
  • Politics of conservation in Australia
  • Biophysical relationships between terrestrial and marine ecosystems

On this study abroad program, you will learn in a truly world-class environment. Australia is home to flora and fauna that cannot be found elsewhere in the world, and here you will be able to examine complex ecosystems directly where they are found.

snorkelingHighlights include: 

  • Living on the Doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef – During a 10-day stay at the Lizard Island Research Station, you will spend approximately 50 hours conducting scientific surveys among the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. 
  • Living in the Rainforest – For eight days of the rainforest seminar, you will live in accommodations on the edge of an upland rainforest teeming with life. At dawn, birds such as the chowchilla, eastern whipbird, and superb fruit dove often make their presence known through a cacophonous "dawn chorus." At night, leaf eating possums, bandicoots, flying foxes (large fruit-eating bats), and pademelons (a miniature kangaroo of the rainforest) are easily spotlighted in the forest and small clearings near student accommodations. 
  • "Going Bush" with Aboriginal Elders – During the group's seven-day camping trip, you will travel to remote bushland with SIT's Aboriginal guide Russell Butler. The camping trip will deeply immerse you in the outdoors in order to allow you to better experience an Aboriginal perspective toward Australia's natural resources, history, culture, and contemporary social and environmental problems. Through close observation, discussions, and firsthand experience, you will acquire a better understanding of the First Australians' intimate understanding of ecology and environmental management.

Program Components

Rainforest lecture in Australia

The Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology program consists of the following main components:

  • Orientation – During this weeklong period, you will be given an introduction to the rainforest, reefs, and culture of the region. You will travel to coastal and upland rainforest parks, meet local Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians, and visit the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Cairns Homestay – During the two-week homestay in Cairns, you will stay with local families and attend lectures at Reef Teach, SIT's classroom facility. During this period, you will learn about Australian culture and ecology and go on educational excursions to nearby sites to learn basic field techniques for use during later excursions and your Independent Study Project.
  • Field Modules – Following the homestay in Cairns, the group undertakes the Aboriginal camping trip, the rainforest ecology module, and the coral reef ecology module. Upon completion of each field module, you will return for a few days to the Northern Greenhouse Hostel in Cairns, which serves as the program base. While in Cairns, you may attend lectures, prepare for the next field excursion, and refine concepts for your Independent Study Project.
  • Independent Study Project – You will spend five weeks conducting original, independent research on a selected subject at a location appropriate to your topic.


Cairns is the commercial and tourism hub of Queensland's Wet Tropics and Cape York Peninsula. Serving as the program's base, the city offers excellent access to the region's important ecological sites. During this period, you will attend lectures and engage in afternoon educational excursions to places such as Flecker Botanical Garden and Cairns mangrove boardwalk. During these short excursions, you will complete field exercises as part of your investigation into urban ecology. This period is designed to help you become familiar with the people and places of the region and to prepare you for the intensive field modules that follow. You will spend two weeks living with an Australian family.

Environmental Field Study Seminar

manta reyThe Environmental Field Study Seminar (EFSS) provides conceptual preparation and skill development to assist you in undertaking ecological and anthropological field studies in a cross-cultural context. Beginning with the sessions during orientation, and continuing throughout the semester, the EFSS develops your skills and fosters your ability to observe, interpret, and appropriately function within the range of Australian environments and cultural contexts encountered on the program. Field exercises, assignments, and group discussions focus on various methods and techniques used in the collection and utilization of field data and scientific literature. You will conduct marine, terrestrial, and anthropological fieldwork.

Independent Study Project

For many students, the Independent Study Project (ISP) is the culmination and overall highlight of their academic experience in Australia. The ISP allows you to take the information you have acquired from thematic coursework and field study and apply it to designing, implementing, analyzing, and writing up a scientifically valid research report. Through your own initiative, you will network and collaborate with Australian experts. In the past, many students have made lasting professional connections during their ISP.

Past ISP student projects have included:

  • Assessments of biota in planted habitat corridors connecting rainforest fragments 
  • Ecology of coral diseases 
  • Issues surrounding Aboriginal health and social justice
  • Approaches to controlling crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef
  • Changes to fish behavior under elevated carbon dioxide levels
  • Conservation issues affecting koalas, Tasmanian devils, and tree kangaroos


Previous college-level coursework and/or other significant preparation in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT.

Access virtual library guide.

Browse this program's Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

The interdisciplinary coursework in the Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology program is designed to develop students' knowledge and appreciation of the species- and systems-level ecological patterns, processes, and human influences affecting the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef bioregions. Topics for examination include marine ecology, the science and politics of terrestrial and marine conservation and management in Australia, rainforest ecology and restoration, and Aboriginal perspectives on the environment. Throughout the semester, students participate in a variety of research and cultural activities and learn from researchers, professionals, practitioners, and community experts. During the final five weeks of the semester, students leverage their field study experience and research skills to conduct an Independent Study Project (ISP). 

Links to syllabi below are from current and forthcoming courses offered on this program. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology Seminar – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 6 credits / 90 hours)
An interdisciplinary course with lectures, discussions, and required readings that develop students’ knowledge and appreciation of the species- and systems-level ecological patterns, processes, and human influences affecting the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef bioregions. Resources utilized in the delivery of course content may include the Lizard Island Research Station and Wet Tropics Management Authority. Students may also learn from Aboriginal elders.
Environmental Field Study Seminar – syllabus
(ENVI3500 / 4 credits / 60 hours)
A course in research methods in both the social and natural sciences. The main focus is on learning how to collect, analyze, integrate, and report social and ecological data. Students will develop the capacity for critical understanding and evaluation of program-related environmental issues. The seminar is a springboard for the Independent Study Project, which includes consideration of field study ethics and the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review Policy. Field studies include designing and implementing reef and rainforest research projects, writing a research proposal, interviewing, surveying, and maintaining a field journal. Specific ecological field study methods may include micro- and macro-habitat analysis, biotic sampling and analysis, fauna and flora identification, biodiversity monitoring, population analysis, animal behavior, climatic analysis, and map reading.
Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 6 credits / 180 hours)
Conducted in an approved location appropriate to the project. Sample topic areas: approaches to controlling crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef; the feeding behavior of the platypus; recovery of coral deposits from temperature-induced stress; feeding ecology of coral reef fishes; integrated catchment management; reforestation corridors as habitat for native wildlife; changes to fish behavior under elevated carbon dioxide levels; conservation issues affecting koalas, Tasmanian devils, and tree kangaroos; wet sclerophyll fire regimes; environmental education; effects of education on public perceptions of flying foxes; acoustic conditioning of coral reef fishes.


Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

Excursions to different ecosystems with high biodiversity and landscape values are a major emphasis of the program. Therefore, much of the program's academic delivery takes place outside of Cairns. The program's four field-based modules are designed to integrate field observations, lectures, and direct experience with theoretical considerations learned in the classroom and from course readings. 


wallaman falls in Australia

You will gain immediate exposure to the themes of the course during orientation. These themes include the ecology of rainforest and reef systems, and the cultural interactions that people of the region have with these specific environments. During orientation, you will travel as a group to points of interest along the coast and upland areas surrounding Cairns. During these short excursions, you will examine ecological patterns and processes and the influence they have had on historical and contemporary human environmental attitudes and settlement patterns. 

You will become increasingly familiar with the regional geology, geography, and biota, as well as traditional and modern approaches to living in the landscape. You will visit rainforest protected areas and two Aboriginal cultural heritage enterprises. A day on the Great Barrier Reef will launch the program’s reef ecology studies and help you better understand the connections between marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The orientation period aims to give you a "taste" of the main program components and to help you narrow your research interests for your Independent Study Project.

Aboriginal Worldview

The weeklong Aboriginal camping excursion takes place at a site (or sites) determined by SIT staff; sites are chosen based on factors such as weather and locally relevant conditions prior to the commencement of the trip. 

Aboriginal guides, associated with this program for more than 20 years, will enthusiastically share with you their diverse knowledge of traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and culture. You will explore the environs around your campsites and investigate how traditional Aboriginal culture viewed and interacted with the environment. Group discussions focus on the practical realities of survival in the Australian environment, and you will contemplate how environmental realities affected the development of the world's oldest living culture. You will address contemporary problems facing Aboriginal cultural survival and discuss the means by which Australian society in general, and North Queensland in particular, can reconcile its sometimes violent and tumultuous past with a future that includes the First Australians.

The Wet Tropics Bioregion: A Landscape Ecology Perspective

CassowayThe 10-day rainforest module examines the diversity of habitats and environments within the Wet Tropics Bioregion. The program adopts a landscape ecology approach to emphasize the development of the region, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. You will examine the linkages between geology, geomorphology, climate, human activity, and the ecological systems of the Wet Tropics. 

Day trips to a variety of sites will allow you to examine a range of different structural "types" of rainforests as recognized by scientists. You will be required to develop your observation skills and knowledge of forest physiognomic characteristics in order to categorize the structural features that account for these differences. 

At each site, you will be required to place the site within its overall landscape context and relate the larger scale patterns and processes you observe, in order to integrate your understanding of the natural and human communities of the bioregion. You will be expected to become an "expert" on local flora and fauna, and throughout this module the identification of organisms and knowledge of the phylogeny, taxonomy, and life history of the biota will be emphasized. During this module, you will also complete a two-day field study in which you develop a research question and methods of research and analyze and report your findings to the rest of the group.

Overall, the rainforest field module serves as an outdoor laboratory where you can learn practical skills about reading landscapes that allow you to predict the effects of biophysical factors on the structural and floristic development of biotic communities in any landscape.

Read more about the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

Lizard Island

snorkeling in the Great Barrier ReefCoral Reefs: Ecology and Conservation

The coral reef ecology and conservation module is delivered primarily during the 10-day excursion to Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef. During this module, you will develop an in-depth understanding of the ecological patterns and processes of coral reef ecosystems. You will examine coral reef conservation and management issues from both local and global perspectives. 

The research station will provide six-person boats which will be used to survey the diverse fringing reefs surrounding Lizard Island. During morning snorkeling sessions (usually about three hours in duration) you will learn underwater data collection and fish observation skills and become proficient in the identification of major coral groups and reef fish families. You must collect data for a scientific report you will write as part of your coursework. 

During afternoon snorkeling sessions (usually about two and a half hours in duration), you will explore various reef habitats around the island, observing how environmental parameters influence reef structure and species composition. On these snorkeling excursions, you will often see marine turtles, stingray, octopus, and the occasional moray eel.

When not in the water or at lectures, you may interact with the researchers working at this world-class research facility. Many students in the past have collaborated with researchers at the station on their Independent Study Project.

Read more about the Lizard Island Research Station's location, facilities, and safety procedures

Tony Cummings, Academic Director

Tony CummingsTony Cummings has a BS in environmental studies and biology from St. Lawrence University and a master’s of environmental science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Early in his career, he became involved in teaching ecological study abroad programs in Costa Rica and then moved to North Queensland, where he taught at the Center for Rainforest Studies on the Atherton Tableland for eight years. Tony has also taught university-level ecological field studies programs in New Zealand. His main research interests involve rainforest succession, especially reforestation plantings. He is a member of the Trees for the Tablelands (TREAT) and the Tree Kangaroo and Mammal Group (TKMG). Tony has worked with the SIT Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology program since 2002. His main responsibilities as academic director include overseeing and coordinating the entire program, teaching the Environmental Field Studies Seminar, managing academic and service logistics on field excursions, and advising and working with students in academic goal setting and achievement.

Dr. John (Jack) Grant, Senior Academic Advisor and Rainforest Ecology Field Leader

Jack GrantDr. Grant is a zoologist, specializing in ornithology and wildlife ecology of tropical forests. He has been teaching in various study abroad programs for the past 21 years, including programs of SIT, The School for Field Studies (SFS), American Universities International Program (AUIP), and The Experiment in International Living. He graduated from University College Dublin in 1982 and went on to complete a PhD at the Australian National University. He moved to north Queensland in 1987 and has been involved in teaching and research in the Wet Tropics rainforests ever since. First as a faculty member at the SFS Centre for Rainforest Studies (1988–1997) and later as academic director of the SIT Natural and Cultural Ecology program in Cairns (1998–2003), he has accumulated in-depth experience working with American student groups. As president of the Tree Kangaroo and Mammal Group, he is also involved in community conservation on the Atherton Tablelands, where he lives, works on a part-time basis as a team leader in environmental restoration with Conservation Volunteers Australia, and guides a variety of short-term student field courses in the north Queensland region. He also pursues his interests in art, music, photography, travel, and his dog.

Russell Butler, Field Leader, Aboriginal Camping Trip

Russell Butler is a Senior Traditional Elder of the Banjin and Warragamay people of the Hinchinbrook Island region between Cairns and Townsville. As a boy, Russell learned many traditional skills and stories from his grandmother. Russell has stated, "I went to two schools — mainstream school and my grandmother's school. . . . Now it's my job to teach my sons, to pass on that knowledge and keep those skills and traditions alive." SIT has had the privilege of working with Russell since 1993. Russell specializes in teaching students the cultural and material aspects of the traditional Aboriginal lifestyle in coastal North Queensland. Russell uses stories, discussions, and bush walks to teach students ethno-botany, tool making, and Aboriginal environmental philosophy. 

Dr. Vanessa Messmer, Academic Advisor and Marine Ecology Field Leader

Vanessa grew up in a few places, but has her roots in France and Germany. She moved to Townsville in 2000, where she completed a BSc with Honours in marine biology in 2003. After working at the University of Perpignan (France) for a couple of years, she returned to James Cook University (JCU) and obtained her PhD in 2010. She is currently a research fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at JCU in Townsville. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss from a genetic to ecosystem level in coral reef fish assemblages and on the effects of climate change on reef organisms.

Merryl Baetge, Field Assistant

Merryl has worked in a diverse range of jobs throughout her career, including nursing and leading short trips into remote wilderness areas of North Queensland. She is responsible for assisting with the organization and logistics of materials and food services while students are on field trips.

Although Australia is famous for its outback, most of the country's population lives in urban areas along the coast. The program spends time in Cairns and small towns to give you multiple perspectives on topics, including the Australian urban experience, Aboriginal issues in urban settings, and urban ecology. 



You will experience a two-week homestay with an Australian family in Cairns. The homestay takes place immediately following orientation so you can become familiar with Australian culture and the community early on in the program. Many students form strong bonds with their homestay families and visit them at later points in the semester. The homestay experience provides an excellent opportunity for you to discover the subtle yet substantial differences between US and Australian cultures.

Cairns is a small yet dynamic city with excellent access to tropical beaches, freshwater creeks fed by clear mountain streams, and other ecological treasures. While in Cairns, you might visit the Cairns Esplanade, an exceptional recreational area and internationally recognized migratory water bird habitat. Learn more about the Esplanade. 

Other accommodations during the program include hostels, small hotels, and campsites.

Jennifer Brady, a senior at Bucknell University and a 2014 alumna, was chosen to deliver the 2016 student commencement address at Bucknell. Immediately following her graduation, Jennifer planned to leave for Nepal as a part of the SIT Study Abroad Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program, where she'll have the opportunity to explore the relationship between conservation and human culture.

Alumni Richard Yeker, Julia Krumholz (both from Carleton College), and Maeve Lueken (from the University of Maine) wrote an article for The Carl, Carleton College’s biweekly newspaper, about some of their experiences observing musky rat kangaroos in the wild. Read the article here.

Read a field report on the observation of musky rat-kangaroos in their natural habitat from spring 2015 students Katya Jay (Macalester College), Anna Staudenmaier (Macalester College), and Anne Yu (University of Maine at Orono).

Read reflections by Amanda Lu (Harvard University) on her semester on the program. "Dingoes, Terrestrial Leeches, and the Bush: Reflections on My Semester with SIT Australia".

Read an article written by alumna Meg Anderson (Middlebury College), "Studying down under: Diving into lives of platypus," describing research conducted on platypus density and foraging during the program’s rainforest excursion.

A diversity of students representing different colleges, universities, and majors study abroad on this program. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things that connect back to their experience abroad with SIT. Learn what some of them are now doing.

Recent positions held by alumni of this program include:

  • Program Manager, Natural Resource Management and Biodiversity, ECODIT, Arlington, Virginia
  • International Coordinator, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, Silver Spring, Maryland
  • Supervisory Natural Resources Specialist, US Forest Service,Sweet Home, Oregon
  • Program Director and Digital Marketing Manager, 5Point Film, Carbondale, Colorado
  • Project Scientist, Coastal Environments, La Jolla, California

Program Dates: Fall 2016

Program Arrival Date:  Aug 26, 2016

Program Departure Date:    Dec 8, 2016

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   May 15, 2016


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $16,850

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in: 
    • Marine ecology
    • Rainforest ecology
    • Aboriginal conceptions of the natural environment
    • Conservation biology and environmental philosophy
  • Environmental Field Study Seminar on research methods and Human Subjects Review 
  • All educational excursions to locations such as Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and the Great Barrier Reef/Lizard Island Research Station, plus an Aboriginal excursion, including all related travel costs 
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food) 
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board: $6,400

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes during orientation, time in the program base (Cairns), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period. Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay. 
  • Homestay (two weeks in Cairns) 
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay. 

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $ 115

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $ 75

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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