Semester in Endangered Species Conservation

Evaluate vulnerabilities of small populations and develop successful conservation actions to save them from extinction

Semester Focus and Learning Objectives:

Understanding a species’ risk of extinction is crucial to effectively prioritize conservation decisions. Small populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction, and are affected by several factors including geographic isolation, rarity, reduced genetic variation, inbreeding depression, and survival and reproductive success. In this program, students learn to manage small populations in the wild and captivity and will develop a management plan for an endangered species in order to set conservation goals and quantitatively prioritize management decisions. The semester concludes with a 4-week independent research experience conducted under the guidance of a conservation mentor.

In this semester program, students will:

  • Evaluate the risk of extinction of species and prioritize management options for species in the wild and captivity
  • Practice cutting-edge techniques in gamete biology and endocrinology that help to preserve the genetic diversity of populations and promote success in captive breeding
  • Create a management plan for an endangered species that incorporates recommended recovery strategies
  • Engage in professional development and synthesize theoretical concepts and current issues in conservation

Typical Topics and Activities:

Students learn about wood turtle sampling and conservation biology with Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation faculty. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

              • Understand population biology to assess vulnerability of species in wild and captive settings
              • Manage populations of endangered species using population viability analysis (PVA)
              • Use lab techniques to promote success in captive breeding, such as hormone analysis and assisted reproductive techniques
              • Learn husbandry skills such as nutritional requirements and animal welfare and enrichment by visiting collection animals at SCBI
              • Apply conservation planning tools such as adaptive management to develop and assess a management plan for endangered species


Prerequisites include coursework to demonstrate a commitment to and understanding of conservation-related disciplines, with at least one upper level ecology course (BIOL 308, EVPP 301+302, INTS 401, permission from instructor or equivalent upper level ecology course from an accredited University or College). Successful completion of the Conservation, Biodiversity and Society semester will also count as an alternate to an ecology course. This semester is being offered to third- and fourth-year undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students. Students should have completed 60 credit hours of undergraduate classes. Students must sign up for all Smithsonian-Mason Semester courses in a given program of study.


In this 15-week program, students attend two core courses (CONS 406 & CONS 491) in succession. In addition, the Seminar course (CONS 400) meets throughout the semester, and the Research course (CONS 496) takes place during the last 5 weeks of the semester.

Small Population Management CONS 406 (Weeks 1-5) (4 credits)

Students will assess vulnerability of endangered species in the wild and captivity using genetic and demographic data and methods to assess impact of human activities. In lab and field settings, students will use techniques to improve captive breeding of animals and learn best husbandry practices from researchers and keepers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Conservation Management Planning CONS 491 (Weeks 6-10) (4 credits)

In this synthesis course, students will integrate theory, applications and socio-political components to create a management plan for an endangered species. Students will utilize adaptive management, population viability analysis, literature searches and interviews with experts to develop their management plan report.

This class is designated as a Students as Scholars Research and Scholarship (RS) Intensive Course, which means that students are given the opportunity to actively participate in the process of scholarship and will make a significant contribution to the creation of a disciplinary-appropriate product. To learn more about Students as Scholars, visit

Conservation Seminar CONS 400 (Weeks 1-15) (2 credits)

In this weekly seminar, students will discuss current conservation literature and develop professional skills and conservation career-focused skills such as networking, fundraising, grant writing, written communication in various media, and big data management.

Research in Conservation CONS 496 (Weeks 11-15) (5 credits)

Students will pursue an independent research project under the guidance of a conservation mentor and produce a scholarly work to share with the professional conservation community.