Earth Expeditions
Snorkeling in Reef HQ aquarium
Aerial view Great Barrier Reef
Koala in eucalyptus tree
Orange and purple algae
Students gathered on beach

Course Overview

Dive into the conservation and education opportunities of the Great Barrier Reef, the global center of marine biodiversity.

One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef lies in the clear blue waters off the northeast coast of Australia. Spanning 14 degrees of latitude, this complex reef system is not only the greatest expanse of coral in the world, it is the Earth's largest living structure, a massive, beautiful, and ancient biological phenomenon of bewildering diversity and immense ecological significance. Habitats within the reef mosaic include the coral reefs themselves (some 3,000 individual reefs), sponge gardens, sea grasses, mangroves, continental islands, and coral cays, which together help support a rich assemblage of marine and terrestrial life, including more than 1,500 species of fish, 200 species of birds, six species of sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and dugongs.

This graduate course program is offered jointly with Reef HQ Aquarium, Australia's National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef. Reef HQ Aquarium is a unit of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which holds responsibility for the management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. Located in Townsville, Queensland, Reef HQ Aquarium houses the world's largest living coral reef exhibit.

During the field portion of this course, we will be sleeping near the corals in the aquarium itself, venturing forth on several excursions for direct research on the Great Barrier Reef, and hiking in some of Australia's unique terrestrial habitats. Discussion topics include a range of marine science issues, as well as citizen engagement in marine science and environmental stewardship. 

Reef HQ Aquarium promotes reef stewardship through public exhibits, field programs, sustainability certification for tour operators, reef videoconferencing, and through school initiatives such as the successful Reef Guardian program, which engages hundreds of schools in reef conservation. Reef HQ Aquarium is also increasing its sea country partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people to support traditional ecological knowledge and stewardship of the reef environment. This course supports advanced study of coral reefs as well as on-land participation in integrated methods for involving communities in the preservation of marine environments.

Prior to and following the field experience in Australia, students will complete coursework via Dragonfly Workshops Web-Based Learning Community as they apply experiences to their home institutions.

Course Themes

  • Coral reef ecology
  • Conservation of marine and coastal systems
  • Design of public research exhibits
  • Inquiry-driven learning
  • Community-based conservation and participatory education

A typical Earth Expeditions day in Queensland, Australia is likely to include:

  • Study at field conservation sites
  • Lectures
  • Student-led discussions of key course topics
  • Engagement with local communities
  • Hikes
  • Open inquiries
  • SCUBA or snorkel experiences
  • Journal writing

Queensland, Australia

The state of Queensland, nicknamed "The Sunshine State," is located on the northeast coast of Australia. Covering an area three times the size of Texas, Queensland is home to tropical rain forest, mountains, white sandy beaches, islands, and the incomparable Great Barrier Reef.

Planned Sites in Queensland, Australia

Reef HQ Aquarium

Located in the coastal city of Townsville, Reef HQ Aquarium is the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Reef HQ Aquarium runs an on-site turtle hospital to rehabilitate and release sick and injured marine turtles. They develop and implement a range of education programs, including Reef Guardian Schools, which creates a network of schools taking action inside and outside the classroom to protect the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Students develop skills to investigate and solve local issues affecting the greater GBR environment.

Magnetic Island

Just offshore from Townsville lies Magnetic Island. Over half of this rugged, mountainous island is a national park and supports eucalyptus woods, mangroves, sea grass beds, and fringing coral reefs. Rock wallabies scamper on granite boulders. Koalas forage in eucalyptus trees. Echidnas, black flying foxes, brushtail possums, and over 180 species of birds can also be seen on the island. Dugongs and sea turtles swim in the waters around the island.

Wheeler Reef

Part of the outer Great Barrier Reef, Wheeler Reef lies some 40 nautical miles off the coast of Townsville. Wheeler Reef is off the beaten track, making for pristine corals and crystal clear water with few divers or snorkelers in sight. In addition to a high abundance of fish -- including fusiliers, parrotfish, and damselfish-- turtles and manta rays are common. The reef is famous for gullies, canyons, and caves and is an ideal site for divers and snorkelers.

(Course locations are subject to change.)

Dragonfly Workshops Web-Based Learning Community

Upon acceptance into the program, students will join instructors and classmates in Dragonfly Workshops' collaborative Web community to complete pre-trip assignments. After returning home, students will continue to work in their Web-based community through early December to develop projects initiated in the field, discuss assignments, and exchange ideas. All students should expect to spend two to three hours a week contributing to their Web-Based Learning Community from their home or school computer. Navigating the Web platform is easy--it's designed for people with no prior computer experience. To learn more about this unique Web experience, visit

More Information

For more information on the admissions process, physical requirements, and more, please visit Admissions and/or FAQs.

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Course Details

Notes from the Field


Practicing coral reef survey assessment protocol at Reef HQ in prep for the Great Barrier Reef.

Katherine Leavitt

Director at a science center from Rye, New Hampshire

"This course was an activator for me. It helped me understand how I can be an agent of change in my own community. I love that Dragonfly has given me space to uncover these truths for myself -- not by telling but by seeding and watering and by allowing me to discover revelations on my own. In this way, I am able to strike my own conservation path, and share with others in ways that are authentic to myself, my personality, and my strengths. I am ever grateful, and empowered to activate change in others."

Program Costs