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Volunteers Become Scientists with Earthwatch

Earthwatch Volunteers in the Andes

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may know that I love it when the name of an organization embodies its mission. First, it just makes sense. I know exactly what to expect. Second, it’s a smart marketing move. A brand is only as good as its name. Earthwatch is a perfect example of good naming in action. It is an international non-profit organization dedicated to environmental research. With scientists, citizen activists, volunteers, students, and educators, Earthwatch works to improve scientific understanding: to monitor populations, protect threatened species and fragile habitats, and research the impacts of climate change. They use their knowledge to inspire change by working with local communities to support human populations while they protect wildlife and endangered ecosystems.

One of the most important aspects of Earthwatch is its longevity. Scientific research is only as good as its data, and studying environmental and ecological change over time takes years of consistent work. Organization is critically important—if the data is inaccessible or incomplete, the science can’t move forward. Earthwatch’s longest project has been running for 35 years. As of 2009, this project has hosted 596 volunteers. Earthwatch research projects focus on the areas of greatest need including: costal, forested, agricultural, and freshwater sustainability research; the management of protected areas and species at the landscape and seascape levels to enhance biodiversity; the restoration, revitalization, and conservation of our global cultural heritage through the study of socio-cultural links to natural resource use and environmental management; and the study of climate change and its threat to global sustainability.

Earthwatch Volunteers in Peru

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Earthwatch is a model organization for global research and they are highly dependent on the involvement of volunteers. Research projects are often vast—time consuming and labor intensive. Much of the work involves collecting data, something a responsible layperson can do perfectly well. Volunteers are a necessary part of this process. Without them, Earthwatch would only be able to conduct a tiny fraction of their critical experimental research. Yet, volunteers also present a unique set of challenges.

Earthwatch Volunteers Tagging a Sea Turtle

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In an enlightening article on the subject, Dr. Christina D. Buesching and Dr. Chris Newman of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University discuss the complexities of involving volunteers in research. While improperly trained volunteers can sometimes be a detriment (especially when it comes to collecting thorough data) proper training and oversight largely solved this problem. Volunteers offer much needed eyes on the ground, they support conservation efforts with their program fees, and they gain a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing conservation efforts. Earthwatch sees the importance of the volunteer researcher and they strive to offer excellent training. For the volunteers, this is a special opportunity to gain experience doing real science. It’s an opportunity to be part of conservation in action and to help further our understanding of complex ecological problems. Earthwatch offers expeditions for individuals, groups, teens and families.

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