Semester in Conservation, Biodiversity and Society

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Explore hands-on ways that science, management and policy address current conservation issues in and out of the field
Semester Focus and Learning Objectives:

Conservation is an applied, crisis-driven field that faces major challenges in this era of mass extinction and a changing climate. In this interdisciplinary program, students will build their knowledge of practical tools and strategies to understand human impacts on the environment and develop science-driven approaches to protect biodiversity. Through intensive hands-on learning in the field, lab, classroom and community, this program will explore case studies in conservation ranging from protecting gametes to ecosystems across local to global scales.   Over the course of the semester, students will have the opportunity to pursue an independent analysis of a global conservation issue, and suggest strategies to address that issue. Finally, students will work closely with a conservation practitioner one day per week throughout the semester.

Gunston Cove

Students examine a sample gathered as they participate in a watershed conservation and management field trip to Gunston Cove at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Virginia. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

In this semester program, students will:

  • Identify environmental and human causes of conservation problems and develop innovative, science-based solutions
  • Evaluate conservation actions and stakeholder motivations through multiple perspectives
  • Gain an understanding of human interactions with the environment and develop policy approaches to conservation challenges
  • Develop hands-on, employable skills in an array of lab and field experiences
  • Interact, debate and network with leading conservation science and policy practitioners

Typical Topics and Activities:

  • Develop skills in strategic decision-making and adaptive management of conservation problems
  • Understand factors that lead to species declines, including habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade
  • Explore the role of zoos in conservation through behind-the-scenes access at the National Zoo and SCBI and lab work with leading Smithsonian reproductive biologists
  • Assess land-use and agricultural impacts on watersheds from headwater streams to the Chesapeake Bay, while networking with local sustainable farmers, land-use managers and conservationists
  • Explore climate change research and communications at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and assess public perspectives on climate change action in the local community
  • Build field skills while monitoring white-tailed deer distribution and abundance and their impacts on Mid-Atlantic forests


Prerequisites include coursework that demonstrates a commitment to and understanding of conservation-related disciplines. This semester is being offered to second- and third-year undergraduates from any accredited college or university. Students should have completed 30 credit hours of undergraduate classes including in the natural or social sciences. Students must sign up for all Smithsonian-Mason Semester courses in a given program of study.


Conservation Theory (CONS 401) (3 credits):  This course introduces the field of conservation biology and science-based management of threatened species, habitats, and human-dominated landscapes. Students gain a fundamental understanding for evaluating biodiversity conservation and sustainability in a changing world.

Applied Conservation (CONS 402) (4 credits): Students participate in field conservation exercises in a variety of settings as well as endocrine and reproductive biology labs. Students apply their learning to make decisions in conservation management.

Human Dimensions in Conservation (CONS 410) (3 credits): This course investigates local and global perspectives on conservation issues.  Students develop skills in decision making processes (like adaptive management), conflict resolution, environmental economics, sustainability, public policy and opinion, environmental values, and conservation ethics.

Integrated Conservation Strategies (CONS 490) (3 credits): This synthesis course integrates the material learned throughout the semester through the study of current conservation issues. Students incorporate interdisciplinary aspects of conservation into a summative group case study on a chosen conservation issue and present formally before a faculty panel.

Conservation in Practice (CONS 320) (3 credits): This course focuses on students’ personal and professional development in the field of conservation. Elements of the course include a work experience (6-8 hour/week practicum) and professional writing (biographical sketch, resume, cover letter), as well as assignments that allow students the opportunity to reflect on the Semester, their learning, and the experience working for a conservation professional during the practicum experience. These reflective assignments include reflective essays, a Semester portfolio, a visual essay, written reflective essays and journaling.

Potential practicum placements include:

      • Wildlife endocrinology lab
      • Strategic development and project planning
      • Wildlife rehabilitation
      • Animal keeper support in hoofstock, birds, and small mammals
      • Field entomology
      • Conservation education
      • Avian monitoring (owls)
      • Wood turtle management and monitoring
      • Community supported agriculture and working landscapes