Australia

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

Credits

16

Prerequisites

Relevant previous coursework

Courses taught in

English

Dates

Jan 31 ‎– May 14

Program Countries

Australia

Program Base

Cairns

Critical Global Issue of Study

Climate & Environment

Climate & Environment Icon

Overview

Why study cultural ecology in Australia?

Situated between the Wet Tropics Bioregion and the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is the ideal base for exploring these two incredibly diverse and vulnerable regions. In these settings, you’ll 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.

Highlights

  • Spend a week with Aboriginal elders on a camping trip in remote bushland.
  • Conduct scientific surveys and snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
  • Experience the sights and sounds of the rainforest in outdoor “classrooms.”
  • Develop fieldwork skills including surveying, observation, and interpretation.

Prerequisites

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

Excursions

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 eight days, you’ll 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. Take out one of the station’s boats to survey 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 will see many marine turtles, stingrays, octopuses, and the occasional moray eel.

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

Academics

Coursework

Access virtual library guide.

Four field-based modules integrate field observations, lectures, and direct experience with theory learned in the classroom and from course readings. Field exercises, assignments, and group discussions focus on the methods and techniques used to collect and use field data and scientific literature.

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.

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

Key Topics

  • 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

Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology Seminar

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

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

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 6 credits / 180 hours)

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.

Homestays

Cairns

Spend two weeks 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’ll 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 a look at the Australian urban experience, Aboriginal issues in urban settings, and urban ecology. It also give you an excellent opportunity to discover the subtle yet substantial differences between US and Australian cultures.

Other Accommodations

Hostels, small hotels, and campsites

Faculty & Staff

Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology

Tony Cummings, MS
Academic Director
Merryl Baetge
Field Assistant
John (Jack) Grant, PhD
Senior Academic Advisor and Rainforest Ecology Field Leader
Russell Butler
Field Leader, Aboriginal Camping Trip
Vanessa Messmer, PhD
Academic Advisor and Marine Ecology Field Leader

Discover the Possibilities

  • COST & 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.

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  • ACCESSIBILITY

    Prepare for an accessible educational experience with SIT Study Aborad! In-country conditions and resources vary by site. Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact disabilityservices@sit.edu for more information.

    Accessibility Overview
BeoXoHIDGBA
  • 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.

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  • 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