Examine the ecology and culture of Australia’s two most diverse environments, the Wet Tropics Bioregion and the Great Barrier Reef, and study the ecological patterns, processes, and human influences affecting these bioregions.
Live for 10 days on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef.
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.
Experience the sights and sounds of the rainforest
Wake to the “dawn chorus,” a cacophony of birds such as the chowchilla, eastern whipbird, and superb fruit dove. At night in the forest, spot leaf-eating possums, bandicoots, flying foxes (large fruit-eating bats), and pademelons (a miniature kangaroo) in the forest.
Spend two weeks with a Cairns family while you attend lectures and learn basic field techniques
“Go bush” with Aboriginal elders during a seven-day camping trip in remote bushland
Aboriginal guides associated with this program for more than 20 years will share their vast knowledge of traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and culture during the weeklong camping excursion.
Conduct marine, terrestrial, and anthropological fieldwork in a cross-cultural context and learn to read the landscape
Fieldwork develops your skills and ability to observe, interpret, and function within the range of Australian environments and cultures.
Observe flora and fauna, and hear lectures in outdoor “classrooms.”
Field exercises, assignments, and group discussions all focus on the methods and techniques used to collect and use field data and scientific literature.
Study coral reef conservation and management, conduct scientific surveys, and observe marine life on snorkeling excursions among the coral reefs
Critical Global Issue of Study
Climate | Environment
Previous college-level coursework and/or other significant preparation in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT.
Key Topics of Study
Key Topics of Study
- Diverse habitats and environments within the Wet Tropics Bioregion
- Coral reef conservation and management
- Aboriginal perspectives on the environment
- Rainforest ecology and conservation
- Politics of conservation in Australia
- Biophysical relationships between terrestrial and marine ecosystems
The following syllabi are representative of 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. The four field-based modules are designed to integrate field observations, lectures, and direct experience with theory learned in the classroom and from course readings.
Great Barrier Reef and Sites near Cairns
During the weeklong orientation, you will travel as a group to points along the coast and upland areas surrounding Cairns to gain exposure to the themes of the course: ecology of rainforest and reef systems and the cultural interactions people have with these environments. During these short excursions, you will examine ecological patterns and processes and their influence on historical and contemporary human environmental attitudes and settlement patterns.
You will visit protected rainforests 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. You will become familiar with the regional geology, geography, and biota as well as traditional and modern approaches to living in the landscape.
On a weeklong camping trip guided by Aboriginal instructors, you will explore the environs around your campsites and investigate how traditional Aboriginal culture viewed and interacted with the environment. Discuss the practical realities of survival in the Australian environment, and contemplate how environmental realities affected the development of the world’s oldest living culture.
You will also 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
The 10-day rainforest module examines the diversity of habitats and environments within the Wet Tropics Bioregion. You will consider the development of the region from both historical and contemporary perspectives using a landscape ecology approach. Examine the links between geology, geomorphology, climate, human activity, and the ecological systems of the Wet Tropics.
Day trips will allow you to examine a range of structural types of rainforests. You will develop your observation skills and knowledge of forest physiognomic characteristics in order to categorize the structural features that account for these differences. You will place each site within its overall landscape context and relate the larger-scale patterns and processes you observe to your understanding of the natural and human communities of the bioregion.
Throughout this module, you will identify organisms and develop your knowledge of the phylogeny, taxonomy, and life history of the region’s biota, becoming an “expert” on local flora and fauna. You will also complete a two-day field study to develop a research question and methods of research, and you will analyze and report your findings to the group.
The rainforest field module serves as an outdoor laboratory in which you can learn to predict the effects of biophysical factors on the structural and floristic development of biotic communities in any landscape.
Lizard Island: Coral Reef Ecology and Conservation
On a 10-day excursion to Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, you will develop an in-depth understanding of the ecological patterns and processes of coral reef ecosystems, examining coral reef conservation and management issues from local and global perspectives.
The research station will provide six-person boats that you and your group will use to survey the diverse fringing reefs surrounding Lizard Island. During morning snorkeling sessions, usually about three hours in length, you will learn underwater data collection and fish observation skills and how to identify major coral groups and reef fish families. You will collect data for a scientific report as part of your coursework. During afternoon snorkeling sessions, usually about two and a half hours in length, you will explore 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 occasionally a moray eel.
When not in the water or at lectures, you may interact with researchers working at this world-class research facility. Many past students have collaborated with researchers on their independent study projects.
Faculty and Staff
Faculty and Staff
Tony Cummings, MS, Academic Director
Tony has a BS in environmental studies and biology from St. Lawrence University and a master’s degree in environmental science from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Early in his career, he taught 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 this program since 2002.
John (Jack) Grant, PhD, Senior Academic Advisor and Rainforest Ecology Field Leader
Jack is a zoologist specializing in ornithology and wildlife ecology of tropical forests. He has taught study abroad programs for the past 21 years, including those of SIT and The Experiment in International Living, the School for Field Studies (SFS), and American Universities International. Jack graduated from University College Dublin in 1982 and completed a PhD at the Australian National University. He moved to North Queensland in 1987 and has extensive experience working there with US 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 part-time as a team leader in environmental restoration with Conservation Volunteers Australia; and guides short-term student field courses in North Queensland.
Russell Butler, Field Leader, Aboriginal Camping Trip
Russell 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. “I went to two schools — mainstream school and my grandmother’s school,” he says. “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. He 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 ethnobotany, tool making, and Aboriginal environmental philosophy.
Vanessa Messmer, PhD, Academic Advisor and Marine Ecology Field Leader
Vanessa’s roots are in France and Germany. In 2000, she moved to Townsville, where she completed a BSc with Honors in marine biology in 2003. After working at the University of Perpignan (France), she returned to James Cook University (JCU) and obtained her PhD in 2010. She is 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 the effects of climate change on reef organisms.
Merryl Baetge, Field Assistant
Throughout her career, Merryl has worked in diverse jobs, 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 on field trips.
My ISP [independent study project] month was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, a level of field work I had never experienced before.
My ISP [independent study project] month was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, a level of field work I had never experienced before. Our days ran from 5 AM in the morning to check rodent traps, to counting bait and animal traces in each of our seven sites during the day, to 9 PM at night when we conducted spotlighting surveys for arboreal mammals. While my ISP pushed me to my limits — through rain, leeches, mosquitoes, bogged trucks, and permit delays — I also spotted a dingo pup in the wild for the first time and learned to read marsupial tracks.
The homestay is an integral part of the SIT experience. During your homestay, you’ll become a member of a local family, sharing meals with them, joining them for special occasions, talking with them in their language, and experiencing the host country through their eyes. Homestay placements are arranged by a local coordinator who carefully screens and approves each family. Students frequently cite the homestay as the highlight of their program. Read more about SIT homestays.
You will experience a two-week homestay with an Australian family in Cairns, a small yet dynamic city with excellent access to tropical beaches, freshwater creeks fed by clear mountain streams, and other ecological treasures. During this period, you will attend lectures at Reef Teach and learn field techniques at nearby sites such as the Flecker Botanical Garden and Cairns mangrove boardwalk. You might also visit the Cairns Esplanade, an exceptional recreational area and internationally recognized migratory water bird habitat.
Although Australia is famous for its outback, most of the country’s population lives in urban areas along the coast. Your time in Cairns will give you varied perspectives on the Australian urban experience, Aboriginal issues in urban settings, and urban ecology. It also provides an excellent opportunity to discover the subtle yet substantial differences between US and Australian cultures.
Other accommodations during the program include hostels, small hotels, and campsites.
Independent Study Project
Independent Study Project
You will spend the last five weeks of the program conducting original, independent research on a subject of your choice at a location appropriate to your topic. For many students, the independent study project (ISP) is the highlight of their academic experience in Australia. It allows you to take the information you acquire from thematic coursework and field study and use it to design, implement, analyze, and write a scientifically valid research report. Through your own initiative, you will network and collaborate with Australian experts. Many students have made lasting professional connections during their ISP.
Sample ISP topics have included:
- Approaches to controlling crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef
- 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
Cost and Scholarships
Cost and Scholarships
SIT Study Abroad is committed to making international education accessible to all students. Scholarship awards generally range from $500 to $5,000 for semester programs and $500 to $3,000 for summer programs. This year, SIT will award more than $1.5 million in scholarships and grants to SIT Study Abroad students.
SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding for the term during which they are studying with SIT. This award can be applied to any SIT program. Qualified students must complete the scholarship portion of their application. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.
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
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.
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.