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.

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  • 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.

  • “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 lives and cultures 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.

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    Spend two weeks with a Cairns family while you attend lectures and learn basic field techniques.

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    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

Climate | Environment

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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




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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

snorkelingDuring 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.

Aboriginal Worldview

outdoor lectureOn 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.

Read more about the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

Lizard Island: Coral Reef Ecology and Conservation

manta rayOn 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.

Read more about the Lizard Island Research Station.

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Program in a minute-ish

Program in a minute-ish

Faculty and Staff


Faculty and Staff

Tony Cummings, MS, Academic Director

Tony CummingsTony 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 GrantJack 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

ButlerRussell 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

MessmerVanessa’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

BaetgeThroughout 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.

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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.

Amanda Lu, Harvard University

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Students snorkling view images full screen




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.

CairnsYou 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

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




This information is provided to assist you in identifying possible accessibility barriers and preparing for an accessible educational experience with SIT Study Abroad. You should be aware that while in-country conditions and resources do vary by site, every effort is made to work collaboratively with qualified individuals to facilitate disability-related accommodation. Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact SIT’s Disability Services at disabilityservices@sit.edu for additional information related to access abroad and to discuss possible accommodations.


During the coursework phase of the program, you will generally be in class five to six days per week for three to five hours per day. You will have breaks between classes. Learning is typically assessed through take-home assignments, in-class assignments, written assignments/exams, oral presentations/exams, individual assignments, group assignments, and in-class quizzes/exams. Course reading and in-class materials are typically available in a digital format.

If you have questions about alternate format materials, testing accommodations, or other academic accommodations, you are encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Services as early as possible.

Program Center

The program office is accessible by a ramp. Its classrooms and restroom are either located on the ground level or accessible by an elevator. The program does not have a separate study/library, computer space, or lounge for students. The building’s entrance, pathways/hallways, and the classroom doorway are at least 32 in. (82 cm.) wide. The restroom has running water.


The program includes extensive, multi-day, field trips that involve hiking in rainforests, snorkeling amidst reef systems, and becoming familiar with Australian flora and fauna, which can include insects, leeches, reptiles, and thorny vines. A weeklong Aboriginal camping excursion also takes place. You can expect some early rising and eight-hour days in the field. A pair of comfortable, rubber soled, waterproof shoes are recommended. Please note that to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.


You will have a two-week homestay with an Australian family in the Cairns area. The program’s homestay coordinator will be responsible for placing you in your homestay. Placements are made based, first, on health concerns, including any allergies or dietary needs, to the extent possible. Your homestay will have regular access to Wi-Fi, electricity to charge devices, and a refrigerator for storing medication. Physically accessible homestays are currently available but limited.

If you have questions about homestay accessibility, you are encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Services as early as possible.

Dietary Needs

Vegetarians and vegans without special requirements can be accommodated when camping or when the group is cooking, but special diets cannot always be accommodated while you are in the homestay. Breakfast is generally made up of cereal and toast. Sandwiches, burgers, and meat pies are a popular lunch food. A traditional Australian evening meal may consist of meat and two vegetables, but other foods and cuisines are also enjoyed.

SIT Study Abroad works with students, program staff, homestay families, home colleges and universities, and others to accommodate student dietary needs whenever possible. For more information on dietary needs and dietary preferences, please review the Student Support section of the Student Health, Safety, and Support web page.


In Cairns, you will typically travel the six miles (10 km) between your homestay, classes, and/or placement sites by walking, riding bikes, and/or taking the public buses. The general routes of travel are level. Walking, chartered buses, and taxis are used for transportation on local excursions. An excursion to Lizard Island Research Station requires a one-hour flight using two small planes to transport the group and luggage. While on Lizard Island, you will also ride small boats daily. Some buses and taxis are wheelchair accessible.


The program’s computer space currently has a printer, scanner, copier, and computer with word processing, spell check, and screen magnifier. You are advised to bring your own academic technology, including laptops, recording devices, flash drives, and assistive technology. It is also recommended that you fully insure your electronic property against loss or theft.

If you have questions about assistive technology, note-taking accommodations, or other academic accommodations, you are encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Services as early as possible.

Health Resources

You will have access to a variety of medical services in urban areas in Australia. Although medical care can be arranged quickly in an emergency, routine medical care can be difficult in remote locations. There are a range of mental health counselors available in Northern Queensland. Payment for medical services is covered by your health insurance if the provider is notified prior to or during the medical service.

Once admitted, you are encouraged to discuss any questions or concerns about accessing health services or medication while abroad during the health review process. Read more about the health review process and the summary of benefits for student health insurance.

Requesting Disability-Related Accommodations

To request disability-related accommodations once admitted, you should contact the Office of Disability Services. For more information about the accommodation process, documentation guidelines and a link to the accommodation request form, please visit the Office of Disability Services website.

Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact Disability Services at disabilityservices@sit.edu or 802 258-3390 as early as possible for information and support.

Additional Support Resources

MIUSA (Mobility International USA) is a cross-disability organization serving those with cognitive, hearing, learning, mental health, physical, systemic, vision, and other disabilities. It offers numerous resources for persons with disabilities who wish to study abroad and/or engage in international development opportunities.

Abroad with Disabilities (AWD) is a Michigan nonprofit organization founded in 2015 with the goal of promoting the belief that persons with disabilities can and should go abroad. AWD works diligently to empower clients to pursue study, work, volunteer, and/or internship opportunities outside of the United States by creating dialogue, sharing resources, and spreading awareness.

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.


Tuition: $18,510

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: $6,989

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:

Airfare to Program Site

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: $ 75

International Phone: Each student must bring a smart phone that is able to accept a local SIM card with them to their program, or they must purchase a smart phone locally.

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.

In order to make study abroad more accessible, SIT's partner colleges and universities may charge home school tuition fees for their students participating on an SIT Study Abroad program. If your institution has an agreement with SIT and charges fees different from those assessed by SIT, please contact your study abroad advisor for more details. The SIT published price is the cost to direct enroll in the SIT program. Tuition fees may vary for students based on your home college's or university's billing policies with SIT.

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