Offbeat Adventure

You Can Explore the Outdoors for Science on a Scientific Field Expedition

Look, "Jurassic Park" is 100 percent amazing from start to finish. But if there's one part of the movie that doesn't get enough credit, it's the very beginning, when Sam Neill and Laura Dern are going about their daily business on a dinosaur hunt in the Badlands. As kids, we all wanted to join them, even if it meant being threatened with a velociraptor claw. As it turns out, it really is possible for a civilian to tag along on a scientific expedition into the field — or even mount one of their own.

Into the Wild Evidence-Based Yonder

Most scientists who study the natural world need to embark on a field expedition at some point, although each plans the trip with different needs in mind. An ornithologist can head into the woods with just their trusty binoculars, a paleontologist packs up their brushes, chisels, and hammers, and a volcanologist needs to bring some heavier-duty equipment that can stand the heat. But what links them all together is that they all could use a little help when it comes to collecting data. And that's where citizen scientists come in.

There are tons of ways that you — yes, you — could get involved in scientific fieldwork. It all depends on what you're interested in and how much time, money, and energy you're willing to invest. One great place to start? An organization like Adventure Scientists. They're not just trying to learn about the world — they're trying to save it. As long as you meet the qualifications (which include things like being at least 18 years old, having access to a smartphone, and being in the area at the right time), you can start gathering genetic samples of maple trees to help stop the sale of illegally harvested tinder. Other programs include the Pollinators Project, which seeks to gather data on butterflies far from urban centers, and Wildlife Connectivity, which tracks roadkill patterns across the country.

EarthWatch is another great option for people who want to learn about the world and save it at the same time. Unlike Adventure Scientists, which generally only has a few initiatives running at a time, this organization gathers the data-collection needs of hundreds of scientists from around the globe and lets you choose your region, activity level, and area of interest from a convenient search function. Plug in "North America," "Easy," and "Archaeology," and you get a journey to the ancient Pueblo communities. Want something with a little more activity and a lot more wildlife? Montana's grizzly bears are waiting.

Sciencing From Your Own Home

The prospect of joining scientists in the field — or heading out into the field on a scientist's behalf — is thrilling, but it also presents a few key challenges. For one thing, you've got to find the time to actually do it, and that can be tough if your assignment is remote and your job is not. Not to mention the fact that many of these expeditions require financial buy-in from participants, not only to cover the costs of travel and lodging, but also to fund the research itself. Luckily, even if it's just not the right time for you to head out into the woods and start classifying butterflies, there are still ways you can help out from home.

Zooniverse is a transatlantic initiative that's always looking for volunteers to help out. Best of all, it doesn't matter if your subject is in England and you're in Ohio: All participation is entirely online. Like Earthwatch, Zooniverse offers a broad selection of fascinating topics, from the arts to zoology. Some of their projects are meant to test public knowledge, as in "Where Are My Body Organs?" All you need to do is answer where you think certain body organs are located — the goal is to get a sense of a beginner med student's understanding of the human body. Other projects present you with data and ask for your help to curate and classify them. For example, "The American Soldier" presents WWII surveys filled out by infantrymen asks participants to classify them according to the infantrymen's attitudes and writing styles. It's important work that helps us better understand the past, and we can all participate to better understand the future. 

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Being an active volunteer in your community is important. Learn more about how to be a go-getter in your community with Cassandra Richard's "Civic Roles in the Community: How Citizens Get Involved (Spotlight on Civic Action)" We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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