Earth Expeditions
Sea turtle “hiding” in plain sight amongst rocks and ripples
Rocky Hawaiian coast with blue water, white foam
Sun sets behind palm trees
‘Alalā, native Hawaiian crow, close up
Mural painting of 'Iʻiwi, a bird with scarlet plumage and a curved bill

Course Overview

Help save the Hawaiian crow and other native forest birds while learning what it takes to restore local plant communities and rescue species from extinction.

Born from a volcanic hotspot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the extraordinary island ecosystems of Hawai‘i evolved in isolation over millions of years. The islands have long been home to many species that occur nowhere else on the planet. However, since the arrival of humans, native species have been under tremendous threat, and by many measures Hawai‘i is becoming one of the United States’ most profound conservation failures. Habitat destruction, environmental degradation, introduced species, and other forces have made Hawai‘i a global center for extinction. For example, more than half of 113 endemic Hawaiian bird species have perished. Most of the remaining species are in decline or hanging by a thread. Yet as we document, one-by-one, the extinction of Hawaiian species, the image of Hawai‘i as a diverse tropical paradise continues each year to draw millions of visitors, the vast majority remaining unaware that the native species of Hawai‘i are in peril.

Students in this course will join with San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG), Project Dragonfly, and Hawaiian partners to explore what it takes to save species in the wild. We will focus especially on the inspirational work of SDZG’s Institute for Conservation Research, which uses science, education, and community programs to rescue species from the brink of extinction. The Institute’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) has a successful history of restoring Hawaiian birds and their native forested habitats. The KBCC is currently working with several species, including the Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā, which has been extinct in the wild since 2002, and whose last remaining members live only in captivity. Historically, the ‘Alalā has contributed to the health of native forests as a significant seed disperser, and the bird has an important place in Hawaiian culture. An earlier effort to reintroduce the ‘Alalā did not succeed. Evidence suggests that the success of a planned second attempt will depend partly on developing and implementing effective methods of community engagement and participatory education.

We expect Earth Expedition’s Hawai‘i program to immerse graduate students and local partners in developing and testing site-specific methods of community engagement to sustain ecological and social health.

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

Course Themes

  • Extinction
  • Island biogeography
  • Species reintroduction
  • Habitat restoration
  • Community-based civic action
  • Inquiry-driven learning
  • Participatory education

A typical Earth Expeditions day in Hawai‘i is likely to include:

  • Lectures and study at field conservation sites
  • Open inquiries
  • Engagement with local communities
  • Student-led discussions of key course topics
  • Journal writing 

"I have learned so many amazing things. Not just about the places I have been in the global community but about myself and my own capabilities."

- - Melissa C., Cincinnati, Ohio

Planned Sites in Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i, the Big Island

An island of superlatives, Hawai‘i is the largest, most diverse, and newest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. The Big Island features five active volcanoes including Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It is also an island of extremes from snow-covered mountains to hot, sunny beaches; from dry, barren lava fields to lush tropical rainforests.

Keauhou Bird Conservation Center

The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) is located near Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. The KBCC is one of two bird conservation centers under the umbrella of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, a partnership among the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and the State of Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

The KBCC aids in the recovery of Hawaiian ecosystems by preventing the extinction and promoting the recovery of Hawai’i’s most threatened native birds, including the ‘ Alalā, or Hawaiian crow. Approximately two-thirds of the world’s entire population of ‘ Alalā reside at KBCC; some are destined for eventual reintroduction to their native habitat.

Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge

The Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge (HFNWR) was established in 1985 to promote the recovery of endangered forest birds and their habitat. The refuge supports a number of endangered native species such as ‘ Io, or Hawaiian hawk, and the ‘ akiapola‘au, a honeycreeper. The HFNWR management works to improve the health of the forest by eliminating grazing by domestic cattle and by fencing thousands of acres to keep out destructive wild cattle and feral pigs. Highly invasive, non-native plants--including gorse, blackberry, and English holly--are controlled by a variety of methods such as removal, prescribed burns, and herbicides. To rehabilitate degraded forest habitat, seeds of native plant species are collected on site, germinated and propagated at the refuge greenhouse, and then transplanted in the wild. Since 1989, more than 400,000 native seedlings have been planted in the refuge including common but important rainforest species such as koa and ‘ ōhi‘ a as well as the endangered haha and ‘ ōhā wai.

 (Course locations are subject to change.)

Photo credit ‘Alalā: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Global

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

Earth Expeditions, Hawai'i

Exploring the living landscape of Hawai'i Volcanoes Nat’l Park

Kelle Price

Elementary School Teacher from Elkhart, Indiana

"Time and time again, our discussions with the native people of Hawai'i showed the passion and concern that they have for the island. Their fire lit one in me, and I have been able to bring that fire back home, starting in my classroom. I learned what an article couldn’t describe. The Hawaiian people truly gave me a deeper understanding of their culture, and how communities connect with science."

Program Costs