Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies
Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies

Maymester at the Great Barrier Reef

Townsville, Australia (Image Credit

Study the politics of protecting the Great Barrier Reef at the Great Barrier Reef!

Comprised of 900 islands that stretch for over 1,600 miles just off Australia’s northeastern coast, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is roughly half the size of Texas. It’s the only living organism visible from space. Despite its status as an Australian icon and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the GBR is under threat. In 2016, it experienced the worst episode of coral bleaching in recorded history—around 90 percent of corals in its northernmost reaches died. This led Outside magazine to publish an obituary for the GBR. Reports of the Reef’s death were an exaggeration, but it’s true that the GBR faces numerous and formidable challenges—coastal development, agricultural run-off, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, damage from shipping traffic, overfishing, and climate change, among others. How could such a beloved environmental treasure be in such a perilous state? What can be done to save it? This course takes students to Townsville, Australia—home to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—in search of answers to these important questions.

Addressing these questions requires a level of engagement that transcends glossy tourist brochures and sensationalist news headlines. Students will learn firsthand the complex political, economic, and societal contexts within which the GBR exists. The Reef is located in the state of Queensland. While Queensland is roughly two-and-a-half-times the size of Texas, its population is only 5.1 million. Compare that to Texas, which is home to 29 million people—that’s more people than live in all of Australia! Like Texas, Queensland is known for its conservative political culture, and agricultural and energy industries play important roles in its economy. The GBR lies in close proximity to important farming and mining regions. Large ports, like the one in Townsville, enable Australia’s commodities to enter the stream of global commerce. Bound mainly for Asia, massive container ships ferry their cargos through the GBR’s fragile ecosystems. The GBR is also a tourist-magnet. Over two million visitors each year inject roughly AU$6 billion into the local economy. And finally, over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner Groups maintain longstanding and continuing relationships with land located in the GBR region. Some have done so for at least 40,000 years! These various (and often competing) interests complicate policymaking with respect to the Reef.


Course Design: Hands on Learning

In examining GBR policymaking processes, this course addresses the following questions: What, according to the most rigorous scientific studies, is the current state of the GBR’s ecosystems? What policies are in place to manage and protect the GBR, and what levels of government are responsible for implementing those policies? What explains the adoption of these policies—in other words, what are their political and economic foundations? How well are existing policies working? Are there better policy options? And, if so, what are the political prospects for their adoption? In sum, to what extent is GBR policy driven by scientific evidence, political calculations, and economic imperatives? In answering these questions, the course considers the role of political institutions, party politics, economic interests, societal values, activism, and experts in shaping policy outcomes.

It does so through a combination of classroom learning and on-site investigation at the GBR. The latter entails visiting the Reef and seeing firsthand the difference between healthy and unhealthy coral reefs; learning from leading GBR researchers about threats to the Reef; and, meeting with representatives from the various political, economic, and societal sectors that have a stake in the GBR. The course will combine regular classroom meetings with experiential, active learning. Students will assume the role of researchers charged with ascertaining the state of the GBR, evaluating the effectiveness of current policies, and assessing the GBR’s future prospects. Within these parameters, they will focus on a specific issue of their choice.

The course will have a regular classroom schedule, but its defining feature will be its access to the GBR and various persons with special knowledge and interests in the Reef. Small groups of roughly five students each will be assembled based on student responses to a pre-trip survey. During our four weeks in the field, students will engage with one another in their groups as they pursue their individual research projects. Group work will consist of preparing for meetings and excursions that will entail: (1) researching the people with whom they will meet and the places they will visit; (2) identifying what they wish to learn from their meetings and excursions; and, (3) drafting specific questions to ask in their meetings and excursions. Despite the collaborative course format, final course grades will be based on each student’s performance on individual assignments. The course is designed to help students hone a set of transferable skills that includes research, writing, policy analysis, interviewing, and public speaking.

Students who participate will be required to enroll in a one-credit hour course in the spring 2021 semester. They are encouraged, but not required, to take Australian Society and Politics (GOV 365J), also offered in spring 2021.

Course Content and Planned Excusions

(To download an itinerary of the trip click here.)

Understanding the politics of protecting the GBR requires a breadth of knowledge about the reef and the wider region. This course builds that knowledge base through a mix of active-learning activities that includes excursions and personal meetings with experts, stakeholders, and public officials. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) Headquarters is located in Townsville, and we are pleased to be partnering with them for purposes of this course. Fred Nucifora, Director of Reef Education and Stewardship, and his staff will introduce students to the challenges facing the GBRMPA and provide an overview of how the Park is managed. We are also working closely with a local provider to organize various overnight excursions and day-trips. The itinerary will be finalized in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s what’s in the works.

Experience Australia's Flora and Fauna

The Australian continent is home to a wide range of flora and fauna. This course offers students multiple opportunities to learn first-hand about Australia’s fragile ecosystems and the unique species that inhabit them. It does so by taking advantage of some of the region’s premiere ecotourist attractions. Importantly, these excursions also serve a key pedagogical purpose. All provide time for students to meet the people who run the businesses that manage these attractions and discuss with them the sustainability strategies that they employ in order to strike a balance between the profit and environmental-protection imperatives that face the ecotourism sector. 

A visit to Billabong Sanctuary Australian Wildlife Experience, a leader in conservation, affords an opportunity for hands-on learning about Australia’s iconic species, such as koalas, crocodiles, and kangaroos. Students will also learn how the company’s corporate management practices support the business’ long-term sustainability while meaningfully contributing to environmental causes. And, they will participate in a service-learning project. 

SeaLink Travel Group, Townsville’s most experienced marine tourism operator, will escort students to some of the best sites on the GBR for snorkeling. A GBRMPA Education Team Reef Guide will accompany the class and introduce students to key features of the reef as well as to the GBRMPA’s “Eye on the Reef Rapid Monitoring Program,” a citizen-science tool that enables community members to help monitor the reef’s health. Students will learn how to collect data for the Program. A management representative from Sealink Travel Group will discuss business operations and concerns as well as the practices that local operators use to minimize their impact on the environment and help rehabilitate the GBR.

A second trip onto the GBR will take students, along with a GBRMPA Education Team Reef Guide, to Magnetic Island, where they will apply their knowledge by participating in a Reef Health Assessment under the supervision of marine experts and experienced crew. The class will overnight on the Island, staying at Bungalow Bay Koala Village, where a Ranger will educate students about the diversity of Australia’s terrestrial ecosystems and species and facilitate a hands-on introduction to Australian wildlife.

In addition to exploring the GBR, students will travel 64 miles to an inland region northwest of Townsville. During their three-night stay at Hidden Valley Cabins, an award-winning, eco-friendly resort, students will meet the owner-operator and learn how the remote, family-run business incorporates sustainable practices (like using solar power to meet all of its energy needs) into its operations. A visit to Hands on Wildlife will educate students about the dangerous animals that inhabit Tropical North Queensland, provide opportunities to see these animals in a safe and secure environment, and instruct students on how to respond to these animals should they encounter them during their trip. Students will explore the Paluma Range National Parkand Girringun National Park. Professional guides will explain the local ecosystems and lead hikes along the Running River Gorge and Witt’s Lookout Trails, the latter of which features beautiful views of the coast and Queensland’s World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics. Students will also visit Wallaman Falls, an area that has been targeted for further ecotourism development. Plummeting 1,000 feet into Stony Creek Gorge, Wallaman Falls is the largest sheer-drop waterfall in the southern hemisphere. And finally, students will also go platypus spotting!

Learn about Natural Resource Sustainability and Management

While tourism plays a significant role in the region’s economy, it is only one of several important economic sectors. Agriculture, commercial fishing, mining, and international shipping are also vital to Queensland’s economy. Each is a key stakeholder in terms of GBR policymaking. Coexistence of these industries alongside the GBR raises distinct sets of policy challenges. The course takes students into the field to tour key agricultural sites as well as the Port of Townsville, and it enables students to talk with representatives from each economic sector about their business interests, the challenges they face, and their GBR policy preferences.

Queensland accounts for roughly 95 percent of sugar produced nationally. Australia is the world’s second largest raw sugar exporter, sending over 80 percent of its production overseas, mainly to Asian markets. Locally, the sugar industry generates nearly 10,000 direct jobs and AU$379 million in wages and incomes. The class will visit the Herbert Valley sugar-growing district and tour a sugarcane plantation in Ingham, where they will learn how world-leading techniques are being implemented in an effort to protect the region’s delicate ecosystems. Students will learn firsthand about the sugar industry, its diversification, and how it’s being affected by rising demand from Asia.

Townsville is home to a high-value, commodity port that annually handles over 11 million tons of cargo worth over AU$10 billion to the Queensland economy. Seventy-five percent of this trade occurs with Asian countries. The Port of Townsville is the largest container and automotive port in Northern Australia as well as the country’s biggest exporter of copper, lead, zinc, and sugar. The class will tour the Port to gain an understanding of its importance to the local economy and consider how such a large shipping operation can coexist alongside the GBR.

Commercial fishing is the largest extractive activity within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and it’s an important contributor to Australia’s seafood industry, with over 8,000 tons of seafood harvested each year. The class will learn about different types of fishing and sustainable practices from Tom Hatley, a Project Manager of Sustainable Fishing at Reef Education and Stewardship at the GBRMPA.

Mining activity comprised 11.8 percent (AU$38.8 billion) of Queensland’s economy in 2017-18. The state’s coal and bauxite reserves are among the largest in the world and possess a high-grade quality that makes them sought-after products overseas. In June 2019, the Queensland government greenlighted a controversial new thermal-coal mine, known as the Adani Carmichael Mine, in Central Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The #StopAdani campaign claims that the mine will increase shipping traffic through the GBR and generate over 4.6 billion tons of carbon pollution over its lifespan. Students will explore these issues with a representative from the mining industry.

Meet the Scientists and Policy Experts

Learn directly from experts about the challenges facing the GBR and the strategies being developed to manage those challenges. Students will visit the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), where they will tour the National Sea Simulator, billed as the “world’s smartest aquarium,” and meet with researchers. In these meetings, students will learn about the current state of scientific knowledge on pressures on the reef from the Port, mining, fishing, agriculture, tourism/ecotourism, and human habitation. Researchers will also offer their perspectives on the politicization of science and the challenges that they confront in disseminating accurate information and combating misinformation. 

Developments on land can have important and often adverse consequences for the GBR. Paul Groves, a Marine Scientist with the GBRMPA, will educate students about the GBR catchment, explain the important role played by the GBR catchment in maintaining the reef’s health, and discuss how protecting the GBR’s long-term health depends on the restoration and enhancement of adjacent coastal ecosystems. Mike Nicholas, a private consultant formerly of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), will discuss landscape ecology and natural resource management.

Talk to Local, State, and National Politicians

Like the United States, Australia is a federal system. The GBR is located off the coast of Queensland, one of Australia’s six states. Yet, the GBRMPA is a national body. This makes for a complicated policymaking process. Students will meet with a range of elected officials and public servants tasked with making and implementing GBR policy. In these meetings, they can explore the various factors—political influence, economic imperatives, scientific evidence, etc.—that shape policy outcomes. 

Learn from Australia’s Indigenous Peoples

Over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner groups maintain long, continuing relationships with the GBR region. Australia’s Aboriginal people are widely recognized as the oldest, continuing civilization in the world. Human habitation near the GBR began tens of thousands of years before Captain Cook struck a reef near the current site of Cooktown. Yet, despite the obvious presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, British colonization began in 1788 on the legal premise that the land was terra nullius or “land belonging to no one.”

Eddie Koiki Mabo, the man whose 1992 court case (Mabo v. Queensland) jettisoned terra nullius and revolutionized land tenure in Australia by recognizing Native Title, had a longstanding connection to Townsville, as evidenced by the Mabo Memorial Sculpture located there. The course uses Mabo’s life as a lens through which to understand the history of Indigenous-settler relations in Australia. Desecration of Mabo’s grave in Townsville led to his reburial on the island of Mer. Thus, even in death, Mabo offers insights into Australian race relations. Dr. Evans will lead students on a visit to the Mabo Memorial Sculpture.

In addition to introducing students to the history of Indigenous-settler relations, the course examines the contemporary role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the local economy. To that end, we will meet with Scott Anderson, a Nywaigi Birriah descendant, Chair of the Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation, and Chair of the Townsville Region Indigenous Business Network. Anderson will discuss the pre-colonial culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, regional history post-European contact, and issues concerning Aboriginal business operations.

Traditional practices of the region’s Indigenous Peoples are being used to rehabilitate coastal land and protect the GBR. Mike Nicholas, a private consultant formerly of the CSIRO, will introduce students to re-vegetation processes currently undertaken by the Nywaigi traditional owners of Mungalla Station with whom he has worked closely over the years. An expert on landscape ecology and natural resource management, Nicholas has investigated the use of alternative methods for restoration and repair of coastal wetlands in northern Australia. 

Students will also visit Mungalla Station, where they will be introduced to Nywaigi Aboriginal culture and learn stories of the ancestors of the Aboriginal people from Mungalla Station and surrounding areas; learn about the Nywaigi’s Traditional Use of Marine Park Resources Agreement with the GBRMPA; and, undertake a service-learning project in which they will remove rubbish from the beach and mangrove system.

Give Back through Service Learning

The course will offer multiple service-learning opportunities. In addition to those provided by the Billabong Sanctuary Australian Wildlife Experience and Mungalla Station, students will participate in a beach clean-up project coordinated by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, a charity that focuses on the health of the marine environment. They will learn about the problem of marine debris and the Australian Marine Debris Initiative, a national volunteer network that monitors marine debris and develops data-driven strategies to address the problem. Students will count and catalogue the debris that they collect from a stretch of coastline so that it can be entered into the Initiative’s database.

Academic Credit

The Townsville Maymester is listed as a course in the Department of Government: GOV 355M – Topics in Political Science: The Politics of Protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Students can apply credit earned in this course towards a major or minor in Government, Sustainability Studies, or International Relations and Global Studies (IRG). For IRG students, it can be applied towards theScience, Technology, and the Environment track. The Bridging Disciplines Program is considering the course for its Public Policy and Environment and Sustainability concentrations. It will make that decision in January 2021. The course also carries three flags: Global Cultures, Independent Inquiry, and Writing. Contact your advisor to learn more.

If you think the course should be cross-listed for additional programs of study, let Dr. Evans know and she will look into it!

Your Award-Winning Instructor: Dr. Rhonda Evans 

rhonda evans If I were going to take a four-week trip to the other side of the world with someone, I’d want to know a bit about them. So, below you’ll find a somewhat unconventional bio as well as a description of my expertise.

I grew up in Cadiz, Ohio, a village in the Appalachian coal fields. In 1992, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. After receiving a B.A. in Political Science from Kent State University’s Honors College, graduating phi beta kappa, I immediately went on to earn a J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law because I thought I wanted to live the rest of my life in Da Burgh. Turns out that wasn’t the case, so I practiced law for a couple of years in Ohio, working as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Tuscarawas County and as a Staff Attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services. Dissatisfied with life as a lawyer (and the weather in Ohio), I moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Ph.D. in Government at The University of Texas at Austin—Hook em! I entered the program intending to study the US Supreme Court but ended up becoming an expert on Australian politics instead. Gotta admit I didn’t see that coming! Moral of the story: have a plan for your life, but be open to the beautiful opportunities that serendipity can present.

After completing my Ph.D. in 2004, I had to leave my beloved Austin for Southern California. I taught for a year at Claremont McKenna College and saw firsthand all that an elite liberal arts college has to offer its students. [Pro Tip: You can get many of the same benefits right here on the Forty Acres if you know where to look for them.] From Califorgetaboutit, I moved to the other side of the country, Greenville, North Carolina (virtually another planet) to accept a position at East Carolina University, deep in the heart of Pirate Nation. The mothership finally called me home in 2012, and I returned to UT-Austin to direct the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies and serve as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government. Since then, I have been teaching a course on Australian Politics and Society (next offered spring 2021) as well as this course on Human Rights and World Politics (offered every spring). In the summer of 2017, I partnered with Texas Athletics to design a special course on Australian history, culture, and politics for the men’s basketball team in conjunction with its exhibition tour in Australia. I met up with the team in Melbourne, accompanied the student-athletes and coaches on various cultural outings, and attended their game against the Dandedong Rangers. You can learn more about that here.

Over the course of my teaching career, I have received three teaching awards and been nominated for two others. Most recently, in 2019 I won the Harry Ransom Award for Teaching Excellence from the College of Liberal Arts. During my time at East Carolina University, I received the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award and was a finalist for the University Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Teaching. And finally, I received the Outstanding Assistant Instructor Award at the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. My average instructor rating is 4.7 and my average course rating is 4.4 during my time at UT-Austin. 

I’m one of a small number of North America-based experts on Australian politics and policy. I began studying Australian politics in 1999, and since then, I’ve spent substantial time in Australia every year, collecting documents and interviewing Australian lawyers, judges, and politicians as well as activists and public servants. As Director of the Clark Center, one of only two Centers for Australian Studies in the US, I’ve taught a course in the Department of Government entitled Australian Society and Politics. I lived in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, for nearly a year, during which time I interned with a Member of Parliament and served as a visiting scholar at the Australian National University. Apropos to the Maymester, I’ve visited various points along the Great Barrier Reef on three separate occasions. So, I can say from personal experience that seeing the Great Barrier Reef is one of the highlights of my international travels. I’ve also spent considerable time in several of Australia’s cities—Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide—and traveled to every Territory and State in Australia, with the exception of Western Australia. But for COVID, I would have made it there as well. In my 20 years of visiting Australia and studying Australian politics, I’ve developed a deep knowledge and understanding of the country’s culture and politics. I’m teaching this course because I want to share my wealth of experience with students.

As for my current research, I am a principal investigator for the Australian and New Zealand Policy Agendas Projects. My research is interdisciplinary in nature, reflecting my training in Law and Political Science. Current projects examine the Australian Human Rights Commission, apex courts of Australia and New Zealand, and partisanship in the Australian Senate. In addition to contributing to a number of edited volumes, I have published in the Australian Journal of Political ScienceCongress and the PresidencyOsgoode Hall Law Review, and Journal of Common Market Studies. I am co-author of Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe with Oxford University Press (2014). 

Offsetting the Carbon Footprint

Air travel to Australia has a significant carbon footprint. As a means of offsetting some of it, students will assist traditional landowners owners at Mungalla Station in restoration activities, and they will assist with reef restoration on Magnetic Island through a program operated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Reef Headquarters. Additional opportunities will be identified for those students who wish to do more.


COLA has approved a scholarship allocation of $10,000 for the Townsville, Australia Maymester 2021 program fromt he Rapoport International Endowment. Apply for a study abroad scholarship through the College of Liberal at Arts. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn More

To learn more about program costs and the application process visit Texas Global.

Upcoming Information Sessions

  • Thursday, October 7, 5:00-6:00 pm, RLP 1.302E
  • Special Session - Dive Into the Great Barrier ReefWednesday, October 27, 5:00-6:00 pm
  • Wednesday, November 3, 5:00-6:00 pm, RLP 1.302D

For updates on the course and developments concerning the GBR, stay tuned to this website and follow the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies on social media. 






Townsville, Australia 
port of townsville Port of Townsville (Image Credit)


  • Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies

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