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Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology

Study the ecological patterns and human influences affecting Australia’s two most diverse environments: the Wet Tropics Bioregion and the Great Barrier Reef.

At a Glance




Relevant previous coursework

Courses taught in



Aug 28 – Dec 10

Program Countries


Program Base


Critical Global Issue of Study

Climate & Environment


Why study natural and cultural ecology in Australia?

Situated between the Wet Tropics Bioregion and the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is the ideal base for exploring this incredibly diverse region and its human inhabitants. In this globally significant ecological setting, you will learn to read the landscape and conduct marine, terrestrial, and anthropological fieldwork in a cross-cultural context.

Travel throughout North Queensland, exploring different ecosystems with high biodiversity and landscape values. From bushland to rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll practice fieldwork techniques and observe some of Australia’s unique animal species. Through the program’s strong partnerships with researchers, you’ll have opportunities to network, build skills and experience, and participate in an existing research project.


  • Spend a week exploring a different worldview with Aboriginal elders on a camping trip in remote bushland.
  • Conduct scientific surveys while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
  • Experience the sights and sounds of the rainforest in outdoor “classrooms.”
  • Develop fieldwork and interpretation skills using a range of survey and analytical methods.


Previous college-level coursework or background in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT.

program map


Learning the Aboriginal Worldview

Investigate how traditional Aboriginal culture views and interacts with the environment on a weeklong camping trip guided by Aboriginal instructors. Explore your environs and discuss survival in the Australian wilds. Learn how the environment affected the development of the world’s oldest living culture and discover contemporary problems Aboriginal culture faces. Discuss ways Australian society can reconcile its sometimes violent and tumultuous past with a future that includes the first Australians.

Exploring the Wet Tropics Bioregion

For 10 days, 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. Develop your observation skills and knowledge of forest physiognomic characteristics. Wake to the “dawn chorus,” a cacophony of birds such as the chowchilla, eastern whipbird, and superb fruit dove. At night, spot leaf-eating possums, bandicoots, flying foxes (large fruit-eating bats), and pademelons (a miniature kangaroo).

Conducting Research in the Wet Tropics

The Wet Tropics rainforests serve as an outdoor laboratory in which you can examine the links between geology, geomorphology, climate, human activity, and the ecological systems of the Wet Tropics and learn to predict the effects of biophysical factors on the structural and floristic development of biotic communities in any landscape. Within this environment, you will 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.

Exploring Reef Conservation at Lizard Island

Develop an in-depth understanding of coral reef ecosystems and conservation and management issues during a 10-day stay at Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef. Ride in one of the station’s small boats to access the diverse reefs surrounding the island and collect data for a scientific report. 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.

Snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef

While on Lizard Island, spend five to six hours in the water each day during morning and afternoon snorkeling sessions, where you’ll learn how to collect data underwater, identify major coral groups, and observe reef fish families. You’ll also explore reef habitats around the island, observing how environmental parameters influence reef structure and species composition. On your snorkeling excursions, you are likely to see marine turtles, stingrays, octopuses, and the occasional moray eel.

Please note that SIT will make every effort to maintain its programs as described. To respond to emergent situations, however, SIT may have to change or cancel programs.


Program Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of the program, students will be able to: 

  • Outline the significance of pre-historical, historical, and contemporary ecological patterns and processes affecting the evolution, ecology, and conservation of north Queensland’s terrestrial and marine habitats and biota. 
  • Analyze the ecological implications of natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes to the future sustainability and conservation of the Australian biota, and natural and human dominated ecosystems.  
  • Articulate future research requirements to better understand the natural and human ecosystems phenomena. 
  • Assess the roles that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can play in the application of knowledge and values toward a better understanding of human relationships with the environment, as well as the conservation and management of cultural, natural, and human-dominated landscapes. 
  • Construct questions and research methods that promote unbiased inquiry in the execution of ecological and sociological field studies in an ethically appropriate and culturally sensitive manner. 
  • Operate responsibly, safely, and objectively, with confidence, proficiency, and risk awareness in the ethical collection and analysis of accurate observational data in terrestrial, marine, and human-built environments. 
  • Apply an understanding of locally relevant ecological, sociological, economic, and cultural contexts, experiences, and patterns to a broader theoretical, methodological, and analytical framework that can be used in a multitude of future settings in which the student finds themselves living and working. 

Read more about Program Learning Outcomes.


Access virtual library guide.

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.

Please expand the sections below to see detailed course information, including course codes, credits, overviews, and syllabi.

Key Topics

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

Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology Seminar

Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology Seminar – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 6 credits)

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

Environmental Field Study Seminar – syllabus
(ENVI3500 / 4 credits)

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

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 6 credits)

Students spend the last five weeks of the program conducting original, independent research on a subject of their 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 students to take the information they acquire from thematic coursework and field study and use it to design, implement, analyze, and write a scientifically valid research report. Through students’ own initiative, they 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

Browse this program’s independent study projects / undergraduate research.



During the short breaks we have in between our field excursions we will be based in Cairns, 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’ll attend lectures at Reef Teach and learn field techniques at nearby sites such as the Flecker Botanical Garden and Cairns’ mangrove boardwalk. During out time in Cairns you’ll be housed at Global Backpackers, which is located on 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 a look at the Australian urban experience, Aboriginal issues in urban settings, and urban ecology. It also gives you an excellent opportunity to discover the subtle yet substantial differences between U.S. and Australian cultures.

Excursion & Orientation Accommodations

Hostels, small hotels, and campsites

Faculty & Staff

Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology

Tony Cummings, MS bio link
Tony Cummings, MS
Academic Director
Rachael Sellars bio link
Rachael Sellars
Homestay Coordinator-Cairns
John (Jack) Grant, PhD bio link
John (Jack) Grant, PhD
Senior Academic Advisor and Rainforest Ecology Field Leader
Russell Butler bio link
Russell Butler
Field Leader, Aboriginal Camping Trip
Vanessa Messmer, PhD bio link
Vanessa Messmer, PhD
Academic Advisor and Marine Ecology Field Leader

Discover the Possibilities

  • Cost & Scholarships

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  • To Eacham Their Own; How People are Changing the Lifestyle of Brush Turkeys

    Read Swarthmore student Natalie LaScala’s article on brush turkeys in The Phoenix.

    Learn More
  • The Victorian Naturalist

    Read Joel Abraham’s (Yale University) Independent Study Project. Reproduced with permission from The Victorian Naturalist, published by The Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, Australia, since 1884.

    Learn More