Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology

Educational Excursions

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 Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology 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.

Students 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, students travel as a group to points of interest along the coast and upland areas surrounding Cairns. During these short excursions, students examine ecological patterns and processes and the influence they have had on historical and contemporary human environmental attitudes and settlement patterns.

Students become increasingly familiar with the regional geology, geography, and biota, as well as traditional and modern approaches to living in the landscape. Students visit rainforest protected areas and two Aboriginal cultural heritage enterprises. A day on the Great Barrier Reef launches the program’s reef ecology studies and helps students better understand the connections between marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The orientation period aims to give students a "taste" of the main program components and helps them narrow their research interests for their 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 the SIT program for more than 20 years, enthusiastically share with students their diverse knowledge of traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and culture. Students explore the environs around their campsites and investigate how traditional Aboriginal culture viewed and interacted with their environment. Group discussions focus on the practical realities of survival in the Australian environment, and students contemplate how environmental realities affected the development of the world's oldest living culture. Students 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
The 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 an historical and a contemporary perspective. Students examine the linkages between geology, geomorphology, climate, human activity, and the ecological systems of the Wet Tropics.

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

At each site, students are required to place the site within its overall landscape context and relate the larger scale patterns and processes they observe, in order to integrate their understanding of the natural and human communities of the bioregion. Students are expected to become "experts" 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 is emphasized. During this module, students also complete a two-day field study in which they develop a research question and methods of research, and analyze and report their findings to the rest of the group.

Overall, the rainforest field module serves as an outdoor laboratory where students can learn practical skills about reading landscapes that allow them 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.

Coral 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, students develop an in-depth understanding of the ecological patterns and processes of coral reef ecosystems. Students examine coral reef conservation and management issues from both local and global perspectives.

The research station provides six-person boats which are used to survey the diverse fringing reefs surrounding Lizard Island. During morning snorkeling sessions (usually about 3 hours in duration) students learn underwater data collection and fish observation skills and become proficient in the identification of major coral groups and reef fish families. Students must collect data for a scientific report they write as part of their coursework.

During afternoon snorkeling sessions (usually about 2.5 hours in duration), students explore various reef habitats around the island, observing how environmental parameters influence reef structure and species composition. On these snorkeling excursions, students often see marine turtles, stingray, octopus, and the occasional moray eel.

When not in the water or at lectures, students 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.

Costs Dates

Credits: 16

Duration: 15 weeks

Program Base: Cairns

Prerequisites: Coursework in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT. Read more...

View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Spring 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Fall 2012 Evaluations (PDF)

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