In partnership with Princeton University, Columbia offers a field semester abroad program in Kenya on Tropical Biology and Sustainability. Operating during the spring semester, this global immersion experience gives students the opportunity to study biology, environmental engineering, and sustainable development in in one of Africa’s most ecologically diverse and dynamic developing nations. Based at Princeton’s Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya, and with support from Columbia’s Global Centers | Africa in Nairobi, students will also travel across Kenya to places such as the forested slopes of Mt. Kenya, the wildlife-rich savannas of Laikipia, and the agricultural communities of western Kenya. Students will take four 3-week intensive course modules taught by Princeton and Columbia faculty who work in Kenya and other parts of East Africa.
Students may also use Princeton’s program website as a resource: Princeton-Columbia Program Tropical Biology and Sustainability in Kenya
Talk to Peer Advisors Mike Spiotta (GS) and Elsbeth Kane CC '17
about their experiences in Kenya!
Check out the project on wildlife conservation the 2016 group did with Kenyan school children:
KIDS TWIGA TALLY: Hands Off Our Elephants
The program is based at the Mpala Research Centre (MRC) in central Kenya. It lies 45 kilometers from the base of Mt. Kenya in the Laikipia district near the town of Nanyuki, roughly 4 hours from Nairobi. Mpala is a large property of almost 50,000 acres with extensive research facilities and labs used by resident and visiting researchers, along with the full infrastructure (internet, fax, phone) needed to support a large research and visiting scientist community in a remote location. Trustee institutions of Mpala include Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the National Museums of Kenya. Laikipia district is home to many large scale cattle farms and private game reserves. Wildlife and cattle mix peacefully, and now that many ranches have been converted to game reserves, all wildlife is thriving in the area, including many endangered species like wild dogs, Grevy’s zebras, and rhino.
- Must have be a Columbia/Barnard junior in good academic standing.
- Minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA
- 1 Science class recommended
- Faculty Director permission
The program is structured differently than most other study-abroad programs. Rather than taking multiple courses simultaneously, students are immersed in one intensive 3-week module at a time. Each course builds from the next, applying concepts, skills, and techniques learned earlier in the semester. Students must complete all four modules in order to receive credit for the program, and all modules take place fully in Kenya.
All coursework on the program is eligible to count towards the Environmental Biology Major/Concentration or the Sustainable Development Major/Special Concentration at Columbia. For more information on this please contact E3B Professor Dustin Rubenstein or the Office of Global Programs.
Graded work primarily includes formal written reports and scientific talks, as well as leading of group discussions of assigned reading, participation and final examinations (depending on the course). The program aims to provide students with experience with applied statistics, science writing, working in a group setting and public speaking on scientific topics to diverse audiences.
Spring 2017 Courses:
Sustainable Development in Practice (EEEB W3925). 4 Points.
Students will study the theory and practical application of sustainable development, touching on urban and rural issues in Kenya and Uganda. Students begin with an emersion at Kisumu's completed Millennium Village. Students will then spend time studying agriculture, education, infrastructure, water, and health issues in the village of Moroto in Uganda to understand the need for an integrated approach to sustainable development. Discussions with communities, field work, practical problem solving, GIS tools, e-tools, modeling, and understanding of the local constraints will form the foundation for this course.
Biology of African Animals and Ecosystems (EEEB W3920). 4 points.
This course offers a small group of students the unique opportunity to study the ecology, evolution, and behavior of African animals and ecosystems in one of the world’s most biologically spectacular settings, the wildlife-rich savannas of Kenya. In addition to gaining sophisticated training in fieldwork, hypothesis-driven biological research, statistics, and scientific writing and presentation, the course gives participants many opportunities to observe and study a diversity of plants, animals, and their interactions. Lectures include core topics in ecology and evolution with emphasis on the African animals and ecosystems that students will see in Kenya.
Savanna Ecology and Conservation (EEEB W3923). 4 points.
Only six percent of Africa's land is protected, and these areas are rarely large enough to sustain wildlife populations. Mostly, wildlife must share land with people who also face survival challenges. This course will explore how wildlife and people interact in Kenya, where new approaches to conservation are being developed and implemented. Lectures will cover the ecology of tropical grasslands and first principles underlying conservation and management of these landscapes. Field trips and projects will examine the dynamics between human actions and biodiversity conservation.
Vector Biology. 4 points.
Malaria, trachoma, leishmaniasis and other vectorborne diseases take a huge toll on the social and economic spheres of life in developing countries today. Any interventions that are developed from understanding the biology of vectors and the links with climate, demographic and environmental change will ultimately enable the development of more effective tools towards disease control and prevention. The Mpala Research Centre offers unique opportunities to explore questions related to health, environment, gender, changing livelihoods and vector biology. The added nexus of ongoing climate change, environmental degradation and shifting demographics have complex, intertwined influences on humans and livestock. Through hands-on activities, students will probe issues related to biology and public health. Students will learn basic biology, including life cycles and evolutionary history of disease vectors and their impact on humans and livestock. They will also gain experience in designing, conducting, presenting and evaluating studies concerning current applied questions in the Laikipia region, eastern Africa/Greater Horn of Africa and the broader developing world.
Past courses offered have included:
Natural History of African Mammals (EEEB W3924). 4 points.
This course offers an introduction to concepts, methods, and material of comparative natural history, with African mammals as focal organisms. Perspectives include morphology, identification, evolution, ecology, behavior, and conservations. Observations and experiments on a variety of species in different habitats and at a range of scales will provide insights into the adaptive value and underlying mechanistic function of mammalian adaptations. This course is based in Laikipia, but may travel to other sites across Kenya, which might include other conservancies and pastoral group ranches.
Note: The University reserves the right to withdraw or modify the courses of instruction or to change the instructors as may become necessary.
Water, Energy, and Ecosystems (EEEB W3922). 4 Points.
This course will provide an introduction to the principles of hydrological sciences and their application to ecology, with a focus on instrumentation methods for characterizing surface, subsurface, and biological hydrological dynamics in field settings. Lectures and field activities will address the theories of operation, design, and implementation of methods used to quantify hydrological patterns and processes with emphasis on characterizing the biological signature and ecological impact of landscape hydrological dynamics. Emphasis will be placed on applications of hydrological science to issues of sustainable landscape use, water resource conservation, and prevention/reversal of land degradation in dryland ecosystems.
Agriculture and the Environment (EEEB W3921). 4 points.
Students will compare productivity, diversity, and ecological processes in the diverse farming systems of Kenya, which include highland and lowland, large and small-scale systems, monoculture cereal crops, mixed farming with crops and livestock, pastoral systems, diverse tree crop systems from plantations to multispecies agroforests, and intensive horticulture. Students spend their time in Kenya learning state of the art techniques for characterizing soils, agricultural landscapes, and ecosystem services. They will use these methods across the range of farming systems to develop projects comparing various aspects of these systems, and explore sustainability issues from the ecological, agricultural, and livelihood disciplines.
Each course is a three week module, where students spend over 12 hours per day totally immersed in field biology for six days a week. Students have one full day off per week (typically Sundays), and there is a small Spring Break between modules two and three where students can choose to climb Mt. Kenya with a guide.
Most days will consist of waking up around 7:00 a.m. or earlier and leaving for fieldwork after breakfast. The group breaks for lunch around 1:00 p.m. and often guest lectures and meetings are scheduled in the early afternoon. The group heads back to the field in the mid afternoon and returns before dinner around 6:00 PM. Before or after dinner, students have free time or continue lectures and discussions. At night students often sit around the campfire in discussion, go for a night drive in search of nocturnal animals, or spend time working on project write-ups. Bedtime typically falls between 10:00-11:00 PM.
For certain courses,
students will travel to other parts of Kenya to explore other ecosystems and communities. Students travel together with faculty and program staff to each location, in 9-passenger minivan-type vehicles with a top that rises up so that they can stand and look at wildlife from the vehicles.
While it an intense experience, the programs strives to maximize the benefit of student time in Kenya by packing in as many activities as possible. Students should come to Kenya prepared to be engaged and enthusiastic throughout the course, even when at times you might be tired, hungry, or dirty. While students find the program challenging, they also find the experience incredibly rewarding and fun.
Each course has different housing arrangements – tents campsites or dormitory rooms at Mpala, and rooms in hotels or other field stations when students are away from Mpala.
While at Mpala, students mostly live in a permanently tented camp with large safari-style shared tents about a mile from the Research Center near the Ewaso Ngiro River. The Ewaso Ngiro River is beautiful, and thorn scrub acacia dominates this red soil (well drained) habitat and large yellow thorn acacias surround the area, providing shade. Wildlife is all around, including a diversity of birds, elephants, and hippos. Please note that students are not allowed to swim in the river, and the site is secured by an electric fence.
The camp tents have wooden beds and mattresses. All bedding, pillows, and towels all provided. Bathroom facilities include sinks with running water, bucket showers (with clean borehole hot water) and flush toilets. Students should bring their own shampoo, but individual bars of soap are provided. Tent cleaning and laundry is done daily by the camp staff.
Everyone should bring plenty of warm clothes, including a warm fleece-style jacket or the equivalent and something warm to sleep in. Extra blankets are provided as needed on colder nights.
Electricity is available at the Research Center from a generator and 24 hour electricity is available from solar-charge batteries. Limited solar power is available for battery charging at the camp. Program staff and faculty will have access to phones in case of emergency. Internet (including Skype) and email access is available to students while at the Research Center.
For some courses, students will be housed in dorms at the Research Centre, or at a hotel or other field stations while traveling around Kenya.
While at Mpala, the group assembles for meals and lectures in a large and comfortable dining tent. Meals are prepared by Mpala cooks who have much experience with groups of visiting students. Vegetarian dishes are provided at all meals, but vegetarians are relatively rare in Kenya and the diversity of options will be somewhat lower than what vegetarian students may be used to. In general, past participants have commented favorably that the Mpala food was far better than they had expected it to be, and much better than dining halls on campus. Drinking water is boiled, purified rain water that is safe to drink. Hot tea and coffee are available in the dining tent at all times.
Columbia students pay regular Columbia tuition. Financial aid, with the exception of federal work study, may be applied to study overseas.
Students will pay a program fee to the Office of Global Programs which includes lodging and meal expenses while in Kenya. The program fee Spring 2016 is $5,844.
Estimated Additional Costs
The below costs are paid directly by the student. More information will be provided once admitted. An estimate of costs is below:
- Estimated Airfare: $1000 - 1400
- Snacks, toiletries, etc. while in Kenya: $200
- Entry and exit visa fee: $200
- Health costs (malaria medication, optional rabies vaccine, other): $1,000
- Equipment, binoculars: $200
- Tips for staff at Mpala: $100
- Optional spring break trip to climb Mt. Kenya: $600
As noted above, financial aid, with the exception of federal work study, may be applied to study overseas. Please meet with your financial aid adviser as soon as you can to discuss your personal financial situation.
Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship
For more information about the academic program, please contact E3B Professor Dustin Rubenstein
There is a two-part application process for this program:
1. Please apply directly through the Princeton website to start an official application. To do so click here
2. You will also need to be cleared by Columbia and therefore, need to click "Start an Application" below to trigger that process and then fill out any additional supporting, required Columbia documents.
For more information about the application process or general questions, please email OGP program advisor Meg Booth
Photo Credits: Professor Paula Kahumba, Professor Dustin Rubenstein, Molly Priester, CC'14,
Laura Booth CC'15