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Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action

Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action

Acquire methods, tools, and different perspectives on how to make our societies truly sustainable.

The program is designed to empower students to make a positive contribution in building more sustainable societies. Students gain critical knowledge necessary to make informed judgments about environmental issues and to consider questions related to environmental policy and natural resource management. They learn how to apply the principles of sustainability, not only in their personal lives, but in any career they choose.

Major topics of study include:

  • Sustainability
  • Sense of place
  • The natural environment
  • Social change and environmental action
  • Ecopsychology and environmental ethics
  • Aboriginal relationships with the environment 
Before this semester I lived the way I had been taught to live by my culture and had the feeling that I really couldn't change anything. After being in Australia the last three months, I am beginning to have a whole new outlook and realize that changing the way we live is feasible.

Australia program alumna

Hiking in TasmaniaAustralia: A model of sustainability

Learn how Australia’s successes can be applied in the US and in your daily life.

There are few places on earth where the environment has had a stronger effect on both traditional indigenous societies and non-indigenous peoples than in Australia.

Australia possesses:
  • a climate governed largely by El Niño, rather than by the seasons;
  • a geologic history devoid of extensive glaciations or volcanism, which has resulted in very poor soils; 
  • a unique assemblage of marsupials and plants that have Gondwanan origins; 
  • a human occupation of the land extending back 50,000–75,000 years (earlier than the first humans in Europe); and
  • two centuries of ecological and social upheaval following the continent’s settlement by the English.

As a result of these characteristics, Australia began to suffer serious impacts from global climate change well before other developed nations and, therefore, environmental problems have a higher profile than in the United States. Australian economic, social, and political structures are similar enough to the US that it experiences many of the same sustainability issues, and solutions are often relevant to both countries. Students learn how Australia’s successes can be applied in public policy as well as in their own lives and communities.

Program components and themes

The program consists of a one-week orientation; a two-week homestay period in Lismore or a nearby rural location; local field trips and lectures around Byron Bay; three extensive field trips to Tasmania, Melbourne, and Sydney, and the Aboriginal camping trip; four intensive workshops; and a five-week period when students undertake an Independent Study Project (ISP). 

The program’s major themes are:
  • Sense of place
  • The natural environment 
  • Ecopsychology and environmental ethics 
  • Aboriginal relationships with the environment 
  • Sustainability 
  • Social change and environmental action

Live and study in beautiful Byron Bay

Sunrise over Lake St. ClairWhen not on excursions or in their homestay, students stay in apartments located two blocks from the beach in a quiet area of Byron Bay, a small coastal town of 9,000 people and the most easterly point of Australia. During their time here, students participate in workshops, group discussions, lectures, and one-day field trips to witness firsthand the innovative ways in which people in the region are adopting sustainable living practices.

Byron Bay is situated at the center of a stunningly beautiful region. It’s known for its impressive ecological systems, strong sustainability ethos, and rich culture. Byron Bay was the town in Australia to directly elect the first Green Party mayor, and the party remains very strong in the region. Permaculture education and organic and sustainable farming are highly popular, and farmers’ and craft markets are a way of life. The region also boasts a large population of artists and musicians and has a strong Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal excursionLearn through interactive workshops

Most of the teaching on this program is done during educational excursions and in multi-day interactive workshops (described below).

  • Ecopsychology Workshop
    The quiet and majestic eucalypt forest around the Forest Haven Meditation Center is an ideal venue for the two-day workshop in environmental psychology. Students camp overnight in the forest and wake to a dawn chorus of bird calls. Dr. Elizabeth Bragg, an ecopsychologist, familiarizes students with a range of philosophical perspectives on the natural environment, from economic rationalism to deep ecology and ecofeminism. This enables students to begin to pinpoint and develop an understanding of their own individual environmental philosophy and to appreciate the need to understand the environmental philosophies of others.
  • Aboriginal World View Workshop
    Mary Graham, a Bundjalung elder who has been teaching with SIT Study Abroad since 1993, leads this one-day workshop, which explores the way in which the land is central to Aboriginal identity. The workshop examines differences in the way indigenous peoples view and relate to their environments. By coming to understand a radically different world view, students are able to deconstruct dominant western world views and recognize how they affect our everyday actions and decisions. Students are led to critically analyze their own relationships with the environment and to reflect on what contemporary western societies can learn from indigenous cultures that might help them in their efforts to become more sustainable. The workshop is run in Aboriginal style with the group sitting in a circle and sharing stories. 
  • Sustainable Futures Workshop
    Peter Cuming, a leading sustainability planner and educator, conducts a two-day workshop exploring the culture, concepts, and language of sustainability. Concepts covered include embodied energy, lifecycle assessment, ecological footprint, inter- and intra-generational equity, and the precautionary principle. The workshop provides context and confidence for students to personally engage in a range of practical measures to actively embrace sustainability. Peter instills in students a sense of excitement at the opportunities that exist to promote sustainability in all walks of life. Students undertake a number of practical exercises such as designing a sustainable house and community and developing a strategic plan to achieve a sustainability goal. The workshop is held in “The Crab," an inspiring and sustainably designed learning space by the beach. 
  • Social Change and Environmental Action Workshop
    This workshop, led by Dr. Elizabeth Bragg, presents models of social change and examines the type and scale of changes that are needed to solve our major environmental problems. It presents examples of successful environmental campaigns, and students are introduced to a wide range of environmental activists. The workshop provides students with practical tools to take effective environmental action at different levels: personal, cultural, and structural/political. Students explore ideas for projects they can undertake while still an undergraduate, or soon after graduating, and are encouraged to identify and value skills that they already possess. 

Independent Study Project PresentationsIndependent Study Project

For many students the Independent Study Project (ISP) is the highlight of their academic experience in Australia. The ISP allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they have obtained from the Sustainability and Environmental Action Seminar and the Research Methods and Ethics course to a sustainability issue. Students work with an assigned advisor to develop a proposal and then spend the last five weeks of the program in the field and writing up their report. Projects can be undertaken anywhere in Australia that is appropriate and safe.

Students engage in direct research on a wide range of topics related to sustainability, undertake a practicum with a relevant organization, or develop a piece of creative work on a relevant topic.

Past ISP topics have included:
  • A feasibility study for the introduction of solar energy at Macquarie University 
  • An internship with the Wilderness Society campaign for river red gums 
  • Developing a sustainability guide for students on the program 
  • Developing a map and track guide for the Royal National Park in Sydney 
  • A study of the voluntary simplicity movement in Melbourne 
  • Creating the artwork for a National Parks Service campaign on bell-miner related dieback 
  • A piece of travel writing on the Murray River and the meaning of sense of place 
  • A study of the transition town movement in Australia 
  • Practicums with community gardens, organic farms, and environmental education centers

Read how Sean Sullivan's ISP on the environmental impact of the surfboard industry made international waves and earned him a spot as keynote speaker at an international conference following his semester abroad.

The interdisciplinary coursework for the Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action program focuses on empowering students to make changes toward sustainability in their own lives and in society. The program does this by providing students not only with the knowledge to understand the nature of the ecological crisis, but also with the skills to effect change, as well as the inspiration and hope needed to motivate them to take action. Students examine not only the impact of human activity on the environment and ways governments, industry, and citizens are working to protect and conserve natural resources, but also the psychological and philosophical dimensions of these issues. Students interact with professionals, academics, conservationists, community members, and host families. During the final five weeks of the semester, students leverage their field study experience and research skills to complete an Independent Study Project.

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.

Sustainability and Environmental Action Seminar – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 8 credits / 120 class hours)
An interdisciplinary course focusing on an analysis of efforts to pursue sustainability in Australia. The course is designed to empower students to make a positive contribution to making societies more sustainable.

Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ANTH3500 /3 credits / 45 class hours)
A course in the concepts of learning across cultures and from field experience and the development of the research skills necessary to undertake the Independent Study Project. Material includes cross-cultural adaptation and skills building; project selection and refinement; writing a research proposal; referencing; appropriate methodologies such as interviewing, surveying, observation, and content analysis; field study ethics and the World Learning/SIT Human Subjects Review Policy; developing contacts and finding resources; gathering, organizing, analyzing, and communicating data; and maintaining a work journal.

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 /5 credits / 150 class hours)
Conducted in northern New South Wales or in another approved location appropriate to the project. Students may undertake a traditional research project or, alternatively, produce a creative piece (e.g., art, film, creative writing), or undertake a practicum. All projects must relate to sustainability. Sample topic areas: effect of dolphin feeding on environmental perceptions of tourists; permaculture as an alternative to traditional agriculture; a feasibility study for the introduction of solar power at Macquarie University; creating effective urban community gardens; practicum with the Wilderness Society River Red Gum campaign; creating artwork for a National Parks Service campaign; sustainable housing; why farmers choose to convert to organic agriculture; the role of art in promoting sustainability; conceptions of wilderness in Tasmania; practicums with community gardens, organic farms, and environmental education centers.

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

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

Blue Mountains World Heritage siteMost of the teaching in the program takes place in the field (a total of around 27 days). Excursions are totally integrated with readings, workshops, discussions, and lectures. In each region we visit, students are introduced to the area’s climate, geology, geomorphology, soils, and flora and fauna, as well as its human history and culture in order to instill a sense of place and provide a basis for understanding the unique management issues of each region. 

Orientation: Seven Mile Beach

Students spend a five-day orientation at Seven Mile Beach, south of Byron Bay. The group camps at Linnaeus Estate, a 280-acre property with one-and-a-half kilometers of pristine beachfront; it has been recognized as one of the most beautiful privately owned properties on Australia’s east coast. During orientation, the group reviews program goals and safety, learns about Australian cultural norms, and starts the process of establishing a group bond. Students are introduced to iconic Australian flora and fauna present on the property and learn about the climate and coastal processes of northern New South Wales. 

Tasmania: A conservation hot spot

Experience stunning scenery and one of Australia’s largest conservation reserves.
Koala. photo by Paul DetzerTasmania is a geological and biological treasure where a billion years of earth history is exposed to view. Tasmania was the last landmass to break away from the southern supercontinent, Gondwana, and today, it has an extremely diverse ecology, including grasslands, eucalypt forests, alpine heathlands, moorlands, and cool temperate rainforests. Its stunning scenery, Aboriginal heritage, and conservation values have resulted in 40 percent of the state being set aside in nature reserves, including the three-and-a-half million acre Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, one of Australia’s largest conservation reserves and one of only two world heritage areas to be listed under seven different criteria. The southwest of Tasmania is one of the last true wilderness regions of the world.  

But Tasmania is a conservation hot spot in more ways than one. It has a history of bitter conflict over the use and preservation of its natural areas that is still very much alive. Tasmania has been the scene of the most epic environmental battles in Australia, which have shaped the national conservation movement. Tasmania was the birthplace of the world’s first green political party and the greens are now part of a coalition state government. The state has the highest green vote in the nation.   

The program’s eight-day field trip in Tasmania includes walks in spectacular glaciated scenery and magnificent forests, which include coniferous species of Gondwanan origin, extensive rainforests, and the world’s tallest flowering plants. Students meet forest protestors who are battling to save old growth forests from logging. They also examine the competition between nature conservation and tourism on the one hand and the use of the land and resources for wood, minerals, and energy production on the other. Traveling by bus, the group visits key sites that illustrate these struggles and sustainable solutions. 

Examining local plants during the Aboriginal camping tripAboriginal Camping Trip

Acquire traditional ecological knowledge in the quest for sustainability.
Students have a four-day camping trip at Minyami, a large Aboriginal-owned bush property bordering Bundjalung National Park in Northern New South Wales. The excursion is led by Aboriginal guides who have long been associated with the SIT program and who enthusiastically share their knowledge of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal cultures. 

While at Minyami students make traditional Aboriginal artifacts, learn traditional hunting and gathering skills, experience Aboriginal customs, and hear stories that contain lessons on how to care for and live in the environment. During this period, students also take short trips to culturally significant sites within Bundjalung National Park. 

The Aboriginal studies component of the program gives students insights into an entirely different way of looking at the environment and resources. 

Students visit and learn about a sustainable houseSydney and Melbourne

Examine urban sustainability in two of the world’s great cities.
On the weeklong field trip to Sydney and Melbourne, students see examples of sustainability initiatives in urban settings. During the spring semester, students attend Melbourne’s Sustainable Living Festival, which features lectures from many of the most prominent sustainability experts in Australia, in addition to displays of sustainable technologies.  

With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, cities are a vital element in the study of sustainability.

Local field trips around Byron Bay

Students also undertake a number of one-day field excursions around Byron Bay and Lismore to further explore the natural environment. During these field trips, students will explore temperate and subtropical rainforests, sustainable house design, organic farming, permaculture, community gardens, and renewable energy technologies

Peter BrennanPeter Brennan, PhD, Academic Director

Peter Brennan designed the Sustainability and Environmental Action program and has been academic director of the program since its inception in 2000. An Australian national, Peter was born and bred in Brisbane, just north of the program base in Byron Bay. He has undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in ecology and geography from the University of Queensland and a PhD from the University of Hawai'i, where he was an East-West Center fellow. His dissertation was a study of the effects of forest fragmentation on the rainforest communities in Central Queensland. Prior to working for SIT Study Abroad, he worked for five years as an archaeologist in Hawaii and has taught at New Zealand’s University of Auckland as well as the University of Hawai'i and Queensland University of Technology. Dr. Brennan served as academic director of the SIT Study Abroad program in Cairns, Australia, from 1993 to 1997. Prior to becoming academic director of this Australia program in 2000, he worked as a consultant ecologist and environmental planner for a company based near Byron Bay. As academic director, Dr. Brennan designs the academic components of the program, supervises the program staff and faculty, teaches courses, and serves as a resource to ensure students’ academic needs are met. In this role, he draws on his familiarity with the region as a resident of New South Wales and his passionate belief in field-based, environmental education. In his spare time Peter likes to surf and is also involved with a number of local environmental groups. 

Eshana BraggElizabeth (Eshana) Bragg, PhD, Assistant Academic Director

Dr. Bragg is an ecopsychologist and has been teaching with the SIT Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action program since 2000. She has an undergraduate degree in ecology and psychology from the University of Sydney and a PhD from James Cook University in Far North Queensland. Her work and passion focus on understanding the psychological relationship between people and nature and using this to motivate profound social change and effective environmental action. Eshana is a member of the editorial board of Ecopsychology, a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental psychology. She has worked as a sustainability consultant with Sustainable Futures Australia, based in Byron Bay, since 1998. In this position she specializes in the development of innovative educational materials and experiences as well as systems for organizational change, and she has managed award-winning projects. Eshana collaborates with visual artists and photographers and uses creative writing and interpretive writing to create effective social marketing campaigns for sustainability. She works in partnership with government, industry, and local communities (including Aboriginal custodians). 

In her role with the SIT Australia program, Eshana provides support to the academic director by facilitating student discussion groups, setting essay topics and grading, teaching research methods, and supervising Independent Study Projects. She also leads a two-day experiential workshop on environmental psychology in a rainforest retreat center at the beginning of the semester as well as an inspiring and practical workshop on “action for social change” later in the semester. 

Gina Crane, Homestay Coordinator

Gina Crane has been the homestay coordinator for the Australia program since 2003 and prior to that was a homestay mother for six semesters. She is responsible for recruiting, vetting, and training homestay families; assigning students to homestays; and organizing social events associated with the homestay. Gina is a qualified chef but now works in the field of community services.

Laura BrennanLaura Brennan, Lecturer and Program Assistant 

Laura Brennan has worked for the program since its inception in 2000. She handles the program’s accounting and behind-the-scenes organization. She also teaches various methods classes and has overall responsibility for the Aboriginal portion of the program. Laura has a degree in accounting and a master’s in Asian studies, has taught at Hawai'i Pacific University, and was co-academic director of the Cairns SIT Study Abroad program for four years. 


Peter CumingPeter Cuming, Lecturer

Peter Cuming, a leading Australian sustainability planner and educator, has been teaching with the SIT Sustainability and Environmental Action program since 2001. He holds an honours degree in urban and regional planning, a diploma in permaculture, and completed postgraduate work in coastal management and mediation. Peter is the founder and managing director of Sustainable Futures Australia, an award-winning firm established in 1987 and focused on sustainability planning, design, and education. He has 29 years of experience as an environmental planner, strategist, and facilitator of community-government-industry partnerships, planning processes, and organizational change. Peter has been chairperson and member of a range of key natural resource management, education, health, and community development boards and advisory committees and was an elected local councilor for two terms. He teaches the program’s two-day workshop on sustainability. 

Mary Graham and Russell Butler, Elders

Mary Graham is a highly respected Bundjalung elder and former academic who has held numerous senior positions in Aboriginal organizations. She has been a member of the prime minister’s Reconciliation Council and an elected member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. As part of the Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action program, Mary teaches a one-day workshop on Aboriginal worldviews. Mary has worked with SIT Study Abroad since 1993. 

Russell Butler leads the four-day Aboriginal field trip. He is a Banjin elder who 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. He uses stories, discussions, and bush walks to teach students ethnobotany, tool making, and Aboriginal environmental philosophy. Russell is also a renowned artist and an actor, starring opposite Jodie Foster in one movie. 

Helena Norberg-HodgeHelena Norberg-Hodge, Lecturer

Author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the “new economy” movement. She is a widely respected analyst of the impact of the global economy on communities, local economies, and personal identity, and is a leading proponent of “localization,” or decentralization, as a means of countering those impacts. Helena’s book Ancient Futures has been described as “an inspirational classic.” Together with the film of the same title, it has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold about half a million copies. She is also the producer and co-director of the award-winning film The Economics of Happiness and the co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home and From the Ground Up: Rethinking Industrial Agriculture.

Earth Journal counted Helena among the world’s “ten most interesting environmentalists,” and in Carl McDaniel’s book Wisdom for a Liveable Planet, she was profiled as one of “eight visionaries changing the world.” She has also been awarded the Right Livelihood Award, or “Alternative Nobel Prize.” Educated in Sweden, Germany, Austria, England, and the United States, Helena specialized in linguistics, which included studies at the University of London and at MIT. Helena is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), a founding member of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, and a co-founder of both the International Forum on Globalization and the Global Ecovillage Network.

Helena has lectured in seven languages at universities around the world and has previously taught in SIT’s International Honors Program. As part of the Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action program, Helena teaches classes on the impacts of globalization and on the localization movement.

Read an article about Lismore homestay families and their experience with SIT students. 

Byron BayHomestays are an essential part of SIT Study Abroad’s commitment to providing students with meaningful study abroad experiences that help them understand the realities of living in a particular country. Following orientation in Byron Bay, students in the SIT Study Abroad program in Australia move into a two-week homestay with a family in Lismore or a nearby rural location in northern New South Wales. The homestay provides students with insights into Australian culture and allow them to establish ties in the community. 

Lismore is a typical Australian country town with a population of 30,000 and home to Southern Cross University. In the rural areas near Lismore, students stay with host families on farms or in small villages and hamlets. Many of these communities were settled by people seeking “alternative lifestyles” in the 1970s and more recently by "tree changers" relocating from cities.

While in their homestays, students attend lectures and workshops and undertake day trips in the surrounding area. Lismore is best known as the gateway to the rainforests of northern New South Wales and the center of the alternative lifestyle movement in Australia. Many homestay families are very knowledgeable about the environment and sustainability, and students find the homestay very rewarding and benefit from gaining a firsthand perspective on the efforts of citizens to meet Green challenges.

Other accommodations during the program include apartments, hostels, lodges, and campsites.

Listen to alum Rachel Erlebacher from Cornell being interviewed by Australian Broadcasting Commission radio about her ISP project. She is working with the NSW Department of Environment and Heritage to develop community acceptance for a bioenergy industry in this region.

During his ISP period, spring 2013 alum Henry Brandes (University of Colorado Boulder) contributed to an article that has recently been published in the peer-reviewed journal Water Research. Read an interview with Henry about his research.

Noah Throop (Skidmore College) studied on the program in spring 2013 and produced a short documentary film entitled Where the Food Grows for his Independent Study Project. Watch the film and read a discussion with Noah about sustainable food production.

Program Dates: Spring 2016

Program Start Date:  Jan 22, 2016

Program End Date:    May 5, 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:   Nov 1, 2015


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: $16,675

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in: 
    • The natural environment 
    • Environmental philosophy and ethics 
    • Aboriginal relationships to the land 
    • Sustainability
  • Research Methods and Ethics course and Human Subjects Review 
  • All educational excursions to locations such as Tasmania, Melbourne, Sydney, 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:$6,300

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 (Byron Bay), 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 Lismore) 
  • 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: $200

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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SIT was founded as the School for International Training and has been known as SIT Study Abroad and SIT Graduate Institute since 2007. SIT is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. (NEASC) through its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education

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