Institute for the Environment: Highlands Field Site

The Highlands Biological Station has hosted UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment semester program since 2001. In this experiential program, students from UNC-Chapel Hill as well as other institutions take an immersive dive into southern Appalachian ecology, culture, and history, while gaining real-world field experiences using the latest technologies in environmental research and monitoring. We’ve updated our fall 2022 semester-long program to reflect both the challenges and opportunities that the Anthropocene has brought to Appalachia.

In addition, we are placing a heavy emphasis on science communication this semester. The IE students have created a Twitter and Instagram account, and you can visit their blog for a more in-depth look at their research. All of these outlets help our students engage with their community and effectively communicate scientific research with members of the public.

For media inquiries or additional information about the IE Program at Highlands, please contact the Field Site Director at

2023 Courses

Coursework for this field site is suitable for students pursuing a concentration area in environmental science, geography, GIS, and communications/journalism. A total of 17 credit hours are earned. As a part of the curriculum, students are required to complete a research internship with a local organization or HFS faculty member, and participate in a group Capstone research project. At the end of the semester, students write a full research paper on their internship, and the papers from each class are compiled into an annual research report. Past student research reports can be found here.

ENEC 204 – Southern Appalachian Environmental & Cultural History (1hr)

The environmental and cultural history seminar provides a broad context of the field site environment and explores the interconnections of people with the southern Appalachian landscape they live in through time, from pre-contact to the present, from farming and hunting practices of indigenous people and settlers to the period of industrial-scale timber extraction, mining, and river damming to the origins of the National Parks and Forests, the Green Economy, and modern modes of development. This discussion- and fieldtrip-oriented seminar draws upon primary and secondary sources (literature, film, oral history, diaries and journals) to illuminate the complex inter-relationship of culture and landscape in the southern mountain region. This class will also consider the legacies of environmental injustices within the region. 

ENEC 256 – Human Impacts in the Southern Appalachian (4hr)

The present Anthropocene period of earth’s history is marked by global human impacts on the planet’s climate, landscape, and biota. This course explores the ecological foundations of the southern Appalachian biodiversity hotspot and the most significant impacts and consequences of the Anthropocene in this region, including the impacts of climate change, microplastics, invasive plant and animal species, pollutants, and habitat fragmentation. Field methods for measuring organismic diversity, resilience, and impacts will be considered along with aspects of management, policy, and remediation to address these impacts. 

ENEC 264 – Special Topics: Communicating Science in the Anthropocene (3hr) 

Clear public understanding of science has perhaps never been more important for decision makers, resource managers, and the public at large. In this course students will learn how to translate and communicate science effectively for target audiences. The many avenues available for science communication present both challenges and opportunities. The class will explore various media and approaches using anthropogenic impacts on the southern Appalachian landscape as an organizing theme. The course is designed for future scientists, conservation and land management professionals, science educators, and science journalists.

ENEC 395  Research in Environmental Science and Studies (3hr)

Research in Environmental Science and Studies is a mentored research internship that offers students individual practical experience in settings that match their particular interests. When possible, internships tie in with a students’ other coursework to magnify and extend the impact of the internship, and to provide benefits to both students and host organizations. Thanks to the broad range of disciplines that intersect with environmental studies and sciences, the menu of possible internships is rich and varied, including environmental science, education, policy, and management/conservation.

ENEC 479 – Remote Sensing and Landscape Analysis (3 hr)

This course views impacts on the landscape from different perspectives, ranging from data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS or drones – which you will learn to fly!) to satellite imagery. Remote-sensed and satellite digital data (Landsat and MODIS) will be acquired, processed, and analyzed for the mapping and characterization of land cover types, change detection, and landscape features. We will use UAS-derived multispectral data and Structure from Motion analysis to create Digital Surface Models to provide finer resolution vegetation and features data for analysis. We will also learn how to link ground measurements with remote-sensed data for model development or ground truthing using Global Positioning Systems. The information generated in this course will be set in the broader context of understanding the consequences of human impacts on – and the resilience of – the Appalachian landscape.

ENEC 698 – Capstone (3hr) Analysis and Solution of Environmental Problems

In keeping with the applied and integrative approach of UNC-IE field site courses, the Capstone is a semester-long group research project charged with tackling an environmental research question. The experience emphasizes working as team to conduct and present research that addresses an environmental issue for a client.

A complete list of past IE student research reports can be found here.