UNC Institute for the Environment: Highlands Field Site

More information on how to apply. The application for the fall program opens one year in advance.  The deadline is usually the February before the start of the program.

The Highlands Field Site for the UNC Institute for the Environment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a fall-semester in residence for seniors pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science or a B.A. in Environmental Studies or, space permitting, other appropriate majors.  This opportunity in experiential learning involves groups of students who do holistic investigations of environmental problems related to biodiversity and land preservation.  The Highlands Biological Station has been the mountain field site of the Carolina Environmental Program since 2001, and offers a unique experience for students interested in biodiversity and conservation issues. The Highlands region is an ideal “natural laboratory” in which to learn about the historical and ecological processes that shape the biogeography of the rich southern Appalachian biota, and to explore the interplay of land use pressures and conservation concerns facing the region.


Program Logistics

Students live in a restored home on the Station grounds which are well equipped for scientific investigations and education. Students spend the semester becoming intimately familiar with the issues of the Highlands region, much of which lies within the Nantahala National Forest. Coursework is focused on mountain biodiversity and biogeography, theoretical and applied methods for the study of mountain ecology and conservation, and the social, political, and ecological history of land use in the southern Appalachians. The program also features opportunities for individual and group field research in cooperation with mentors from local conservation organizations.  The program takes advantage of its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee Indian reservation, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and other areas of regional interest to experience first-hand the complexities of the environmental issues of the southern mountains.



Coursework is focused on applied study of the southern Appalachian environment:  Biogeography, Biodiversity, and Conservation Biology introduces students to facets of regional biodiversity within the framework of biogeography theory and principles. This course takes a broad approach to understanding the region’s spectacular biodiversity through a series of modular units that focus on different organismal groups. Lectures are complemented by field excursions with experienced entomologists, botanists, ornithologists, vertebrate biologists, and geologists, helping students to become knowledgeable natural historians of the mountain forests. Finally, students investigate principles of conservation biology to put their knowledge of the local environment into a global context.  Landscape Analysis is an intensive study of GIS and other methods of landscape-level analysis (e.g. remote sensing, aerial photography), important tools for conservation studies.  This course requires basic (introductory-level) knowledge of GIS principles and applications. Cultural History and Land Use is an excursion- and discussion-based course in which we trace the history of the southern Appalachians from the pre-contact era to the modern day, helping students to understand the complex series of events that has brought us to the current biodiversity crisis in the southern mountain region. Illuminating readings, guest speakers, and field trips combine to paint the historical picture of the mountain landscape around us.


Student Research and the Capstone Project

In keeping with the applied and integrative approach of field site courses, each student conducts research both as an individual internship and as part of a collaborative group project. In their internships, students are paired with mentors who help guide them within areas of individual interest. Students are involved in a variety of studies that range from land use planning and mapping to monitoring and documenting populations of plants and animals. Mentors are leaders in local governmental or environmental agencies such as the Town of Highlands, US Forest Service, land trusts, and grassroots non-profits.  The Capstone experience emphasizes working as team to conduct and present research that addresses a significant conservation issue relevant to the Highlands region.



The main course instructors are HBS Associate Director and IE Field Site Director Dr. Sarah Workman and HBS Executive Director Dr. James T. Costa. Guest instructors are experts from regional colleges, universities, and conservation agencies.


Timing, Cost, and Credit Hours

This program is only offered in the fall academic semester, and gives preference to rising UNC-Chapel Hill seniors.  The semester at HBS follows the same schedule as the University.  It is expected that students will complete all the research and writing for their internship and Capstone project before the end of the semester.  Cost for the program at HBS is approximately $5,600.  Students will receive 17 hours of academic credit.  Applications are due in the UNC-Chapel Hill Study Abroad Office in the College of Arts and Sciences by February.


For more information, contact:

UNC Institute for the Environment   at   (919) 966-9922    http://www.ie.unc.edu

Highlands Biological Station (HBS)  at   (828) 787-2820    swworkman@wcu.edu


Student Research Archives:

2004 Internship Research Report Part A

2004 Internship Research Report Part B

2006 Internship Research Reports

2006 Capstone Report (Wright Preserve)

2007 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2008 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2009 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2010 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2011 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2012 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2013 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2014 Internship Research and Capstone Reports

2015 Internship Research and Capstone Reports