Skip to main content
Highlands Field Site
Apply Now


Whether you refer to our modern epoch as the Holocene, the Anthropocene, or the Homogenocene there is no denying that human impacts and modifications across the landscape are ubiquitous. Evidence of those impacts can be seen in the most remote corners of the planet. The Highlands Field Site (HFS) explores the ways humans interact with their environment in the southern Appalachian region and the tools we use to measure, understand, and communicate those impacts.

Course work in this program ranges from a focus on understanding of the region’s unique biodiversity through on-the-ground field measurements to cutting edge uses of satellite imagery and remote sensing tools to look at broader contexts and spatial scales, tracking change over time. And let’s not forget about how we communicate information and knowledge, and the importance of recognizing cultural and economic influences.


The HFS, located at the Highlands Biological Station, has a long tradition of research and education that takes advantage of the diverse and rich southern Blue Ridge Mountains that surrounds it. Founded in 1927 and located on the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the town of Highlands, N.C. (elevation 4,118 feet), the Station is well equipped for scientific investigations and education, with modern research labs and classrooms, GIS lab, Aquatics lab, seminar room, and library. The 23-acre campus, a short walk from downtown Highlands, also contains dorms, molecular genetics lab, a WPA-built natural history museum (Highlands Nature Center) and Amphitheater, beautiful Lindenwood Lake, and the renowned Highlands Botanical Garden, a 12-acre native-plant botanical garden nearing its 60th year.  Amenities further include the Weyman commons building, herbarium, firepits, outdoor classrooms, boats for use on Lindenwood Lake, and the HBS Bike Fleet – freely available bicycles for pedaling around campus or around town.

Students in the IE-Highlands Field Site program live in a ca. 1880 home, Valentine House, on the Highlands Biological Station campus. Classes are based in the W. C. Coker Laboratory building, named for the noted UNC-Chapel Hill botanist, but we take full advantage of our rich natural surroundings and spend a great deal of time in the field. The program takes advantage of its proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Qualla Boundary (Reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Roan Mountain, Gray Fossil Site, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and other areas of interest to experience firsthand the complexities of environmental history and issues facing the southern mountains.


The program is only offered in fall semesters, with rising juniors and seniors given preference. The semester at the Highlands Field Site follows the same schedule as the University during the fall semester. It is expected that students will complete all the research and writing for their Capstone project during the time that they are at the Highlands Field Site.


Coursework for this field site is suitable for students pursuing a concentration area in environmental science, geography, GIS, and communications/journalism. As a part of the curriculum, students are required to complete an internship with a local organization or an independent study with an HFS faculty member and participate in a group Capstone project. A total of 17 credit hours are earned.

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: Effective science communication/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 into information for target audiences. The many avenues available for science communication present both challenges and opportunities. The class will explore various medias and approaches using anthropogenic impacts on the southern Appalachian landscape as a 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 internship that offers students individual practical experience in settings that match their particular interests. When

possible, internships tie in with a student’s other coursework to magnify and extend the impact of the internship, and to provide benefits to both students and host organizations. Because of the broad range of disciplines that intersect with environmental studies and sciences, the menu of possible internships is rich and varied.

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. UAS derived multispectral data and Structure from Motion analysis to create Digital Surface Models will 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 field site courses, the Capstone is a semester-long group 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.

canoeing on the Little Tennessee

Award Opportunities

Please visit the Institute’s Awards + Scholarships page for more information on these awards.

Recent Student Publications

Contact Information

For more information about the Highlands Biological Station or the Field Site program, visit Highlands Field Site Blog.

Contacts: Rada Petric, director of the Highlands Field Site or Susan Cohen, associate director of the UNC Institute for the Environment.

Field Site Blog Instagram