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Be an Earthwatch Volunteer (Help Scientists Solve Real World Environmental Problems)

Have you ever dreamed of working side by side with scientists in the field, studying diverse and beautiful ecosystems? Do you lust for adventure?

Yeah, me too. For years I have wanted to join an Earthwatch expedition. They are the largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization in the world. Earthwatch sends volunteers all over the world to work with scientists to solve environmental problems.

For years I’ve also paged through Earthwatch’s catalogs, eagerly reading about helping sea turtles on the beach all night in Mexico, surveying coral reef systems in the Caribbean, and tagging wildlife in foreign ecosystems.

Luckily, I received an Earthwatch Fellowship to join a team of teachers and scientists in Louisiana. I just returned from New Orleans, and the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area where we went into the field to collect, catalog, and research caterpillars of the southeastern Mississippi River Plain. Caterpillar species are more prolific in areas more affected by climate change, and the hurricanes Rita and Katrina that damaged the area so heavily. Our lead scientist has been researching the biodiversity of caterpillars all over the world, specifically their relationship to certain parasitoids.

We spent the week walking, macheting, crawling and sloshing through hurricane ravaged swamp land (bottomland hardwood forests and cypress swamps to be specific) filled with poison ivy, chiggers, mosquitoes, alligators and feral pigs in search of caterpillars.

I loved it.

Of course at times it was a bit uncomfortable, but I learned so much about the relationships between species, about good teaching, and myself as I looked on the one thousandth leaf for a caterpillar. The most amazing thing is that we could have discovered a new species. Much of the caterpillar’s biodiversity is still unknown. In a week, we found over 500 caterpillars from 12 different families, and contributed to the science of these organisms and their relationships with plants and climate change.

And if caterpillars aren’t your thing, Earthwatch has plenty of expeditions in other habitats, ranging from oceans, deserts, the arctic, and beyond. Just check out the website and be pulled from your state of normalcy into what could be possible.

One of the best parts about this trip (other than seeing New Orleans on Halloween night) was the way I could share it with my students. I wrote a blog while I was there and posted pictures and videos. I also did several live video conferences with my students to share my experiences. They saw their teacher as a student, a scientist, an adventurer and hopefully a life long learner (as hopefully my own girls did, too).


  1. I did an Earthwatch program in 2001 and it changed my life. The one I did is no longer available – studying dolphin intellect in Hawaii with two of the top scientists in this field. I believe there is still one available in Florida through another dolphin behavior research program, led by world-renown scientist, Dr. Randy Wells.

    Find an Earthwatch program that resonates with you on a deeper level and you will have an incredible experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Make sure you do one of these at some point in your life, and if possible, do it soon. If you need a little more incentive, they’re also tax deductible.

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