Warren Stortroen – 100 Cheers for an Extraordinary Volunteer!

After a 40-year career spent working in an office, Warren Stortroen decided to give back and travel the world while doing so. Over the past 22 years, Warren has spent 1,089 days collecting critical environmental and archaeological data across 67 projects in nearly 30 countries around the world. This summer, he hit his 100th Earthwatch expedition!

Warren, on right, celebrates his 100th expedition with Dr. Susan Ryan, lead scientist of the project Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado's Pueblo Communities.

Warren, on right, celebrates his 100th expedition with Dr. Susan Ryan, lead scientist of the project Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Pueblo Communities.

Minnesota native Warren Stortroen worked in an office as an insurance claims manager for nearly 40 years. While he rarely traveled during his professional life, he spent considerable time planning for his retirement adventures. Warren joined his first Earthwatch expedition in 1996, studying bird species in Costa Rica. Since then, he’s traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, Australia’s Kangaroo Island, the Galapagos, and well beyond— sometimes visiting the same project two or three times. As the number of his Earthwatch expeditions has increased over the years, his reputation has been preceding him to the field sites. Other volunteers feel honored to be on the same research team as him. There’s even a fan club named the “Warren-ites.” In September 2017, Warren hit a major milestone: he joined his 100th expedition at the Crow Canyon archaeology site in southwest Colorado.

It’s incredible what Warren has accomplished over the past 20 years. At age 85, he continues to work alongside teens and millennials tracking killer whales in Iceland, hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and exploring an active volcano in Nicaragua. Warren is an inspiration—reminding us, time and again, of the importance of stepping up to the challenge.

And the quotes from scientists and his fellow volunteers speak to the impact Warren has had across the globe he has so well traveled.

“Crow Canyon Archaeological Center started its Earthwatch partnership in 2013. One of our first participants was Warren Stortroen. While it was Crow Canyon’s first [Earthwatch expedition], Warren was already a seasoned veteran with experience from around the world, including archaeology! Warren is such a delight every week he works with us. Participants and staff love flipping through his photo albums and listening to his stories. He guides and inspires the other [Earthwatch] citizen scientists as well as the Crow Canyon staff.” – From the staff at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

“He has always been a pleasure to work with: the smile of contentment never leaves his face, and he is appreciative, interested in the work and careful to get it right. An ideal Earthwatch volunteer; long may he continue.” – Dr. John Murray, volcanologist on the expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua

“My enduring memory of Warren was when we were surveying on the Masaya volcano crater rim in February 2017 – his 96th expedition, my first! We came across some paw prints in the (warm) ash, which with his naturally infectious enthusiasm and engaging erudition, classified them as feline and likely to be made by an ocelot. This being my first such encounter, I couldn’t contain my excitement as we followed them to a cacophony of prints around its burrow – where Warren calmly rounded-off this unprecedented experience for me with a rich insight to the behaviour of ocelots. Thank you, Warren, for being such a gentleman and a scholar – I hope you will continue to enjoy every one of your multitude of Earthwatch memories as much as I will do of mine with you.” – Stephen Middleton, Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua

Warren on the Earthwatch expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua.

Warren on the Earthwatch expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua.

“I remember Warren as a particularly valued member of the team because he set an example to all of us, not just the other volunteers but also the staff. This was because this was our first Earthwatch field season and we were a little anxious and stressed to make sure it would succeed, but Warren was experienced, calm and unflappable. He was absolutely reliable and worked really hard to make the work a success. We all learned from Warren that we should keep calm, adapt to situations and keep working hard, and we would get the job done.” – Dr. Christopher Joyce, lead scientist on the expedition Baltic Island Wetlands and Birds

“I had heard about Warren long before I met him, but I did meet him, surveying meadows in California. He was a joy! …His stories of his many expeditions (only 94 or so back then) were fascinating – he gave me so many ideas of expeditions to go on! A great citizen scientist and a delightful person.” – Brenda Sullivan, Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Warren during the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree's Desert Species.

Warren during the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species.

Thank you, Warren!

Not All Trees Are Created Equal

By Lily Reynolds

The Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program is a partnership between Earthwatch, scientists from UC Riverside, and community organizations to influence sustainable management of urban green space. The goal is to sustain cooler, more natural, and healthier environments by increasing urban tree cover in key communities beyond 25 percent. One important aspect of this is to make sure that the right trees are being planted in the right places. Earthwatch’s Lily Reynolds explains the goal of this research and why it is so critical. 

Photo: Lily Reynolds

Extreme weather, like extreme sports, is something best avoided unless one is prepared and willing to live on the edge. Yet cities around the world are trying to prepare for the effects of extreme weather. The urban environment of the future promises to be hotter, drier, and marked by more extreme weather events. One promising adaptation strategy for cities is to increase the number of healthy trees. Cities that plant and grow more trees stand to gain resilience in the face of climate change.

The beneficial ‘services’ that trees provide our cities include: cooling our homes and buildings with shade, filtering storm water, capturing carbon we produce, and also beautifying our neighborhoods.

However, not all trees are created equal and each species may be better suited for different urban environments and climates. Southern California is an especially interesting region for climate change research because the metropolitan areas span three ecosystem types and it’s the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. Because trees in urbanized centers (such as greater Los Angeles) are planted by the people who live there, it is important to get inside the psyche of residents to figure out why they choose to plant certain tree species instead of others.

Do you really know why you love that tree? ("The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein)

Do you really know why you love that tree? (“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein)

A team of scientists, led by Dr. Meghan Avolio and including Dr. Darrel Jenerette from University California Riverside, studied the Los Angeles region with one particular question in mind: What drives peoples’ preferences for different species and how do these preferences align with the benefits offered by different tree species? For example, would people living in the hottest parts of Los Angeles be more likely to choose trees that offer shade? The researchers were also interested in whether traits like people’s age, gender, and income are related to their preferences of tree types. (Find the full article here.)

The researchers analyzed 1,029 household surveys across Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. The two most important attributes of trees that people consistently valued were whether trees provided shade and whether trees provided showy flowers (i.e. beauty). The scientists also found people living in hotter parts of Los Angeles (away from the coast) were more likely to value shade trees than those located in cooler regions. Moreover, people living in drier regions were more concerned about tree water use than people living in areas with higher rainfall.

Interestingly, whether the local environment was naturally treed or not also had an effect on people’s perceptions of the value of trees. People that were surrounded by desert were less likely to identify positive effects of trees in urban environments compared with people located in naturally forested areas. Several factors such as levels of education, wealth, gender and age all influenced people’s perceptions of trees. For example, older residents were more likely to be concerned with the cost of maintenance and women were more likely to associate trees with positive attributes in urban environments than men.


Thanks to this study, for the first time we understand that both the climate where people live and their socioeconomic attributes affect their opinions of different tree characteristics. Moreover, when combined with another study led by Avolio and her collaborators, we know that people’s preferences for trees often coincides with the trees in their yards. For example, people who identify shade trees as important live in neighborhoods with a greater proportion of shade trees. However, this is not true for all socioeconomic groups. While people from lower income neighborhoods have strong preferences for fruit-bearing trees, this preference does not translate into more fruit-bearing trees in their neighborhoods. This may be due to the restricted economics of this group that prevents them enacting their preference.

Avolio and her collaborators have shown how people are sensitive to what is happening in the environment where they live. This is a good sign when it comes to the future of urban forests, because it means that people consider tree attributes in the context of their neighborhood when planting trees.

Major metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles need to prepare for climate change and planting trees is one good strategy.

Since 2014, over 900 people have participated through Earthwatch in citizen science activities to collect vital information on trees from Santa Monica to Palm Springs. Everyone from elementary school kids to Master Gardeners, from architects to high tech engineers, from bankers to educators have rolled up their sleeves and helped collect data that is passed along to scientists at UC Riverside.

By actively engaging citizens in field research, we believe that not only will we be able to gather the information necessary to make better decisions about growing the right tree in the right place, but citizens will also be able to contribute and increase their awareness of what is necessary to do their part in helping to make Los Angeles more livable for all into the future.

Learn how you can get involved by visiting the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program’s website and stay up to date on the findings by checking out the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Blog.

The Story of How a Painter and Wolf Expert Became Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist: Dr. Cristina Eisenberg

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Beginning at a young age, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg has had a passion for science, describing herself as the nerdy kid in second grade who spent her time in the library reading every book on wildlife, anthropology, archeology, and paleontology that she could get her hands on.

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

“I was fascinated by it,” Cristina said. “But like many people, I got sidetracked away from science.”

Today, Cristina is Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist – overseeing a portfolio of more than 50 research studies around the world, including her own, which focuses on the relationship between fire and wolves in the Canadian Rockies. Her research is playing a crucial role in restoring the once extensive grasslands of Waterton Lakes National Park back to their pre Euro-American settings.

In 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in painting, Cristina relocated to northwest Montana along the continental divide. A naturalist and stay-at-home mom at the time, she learned to track animals that passed through her land – a system developed to ensure her children’s safety. On a cool and misty July morning, as she was working outside in her garden, Cristina watched as a deer burst from the woods into the meadow in front of her home with two wolves in pursuit.

“It ran towards us and came within about 20 feet of us and right behind it was a pair of wolves, a grey one and a black one,” Cristina said. “Later I learned that it was an alpha male and female pair. They had started a pack.”

Cristina determined these wolves were traveling down from Canada and recolonizing the landscape, which was located just 400 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

This rare sighting sparked her interests and she began tracking wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a volunteer basis. She was a citizen scientist in action. In 2003, she returned to school and obtained her master’s in conservation biology and environmental writing from Prescott University. Cristina’s first book, The Wolf’s Tooth, was based on her master’s thesis. She then went on to pursue two doctorates in wildlife and forestry at Oregon State University.

While completing her doctorate, Cristina hired interns with field experience to support her research, several of whom had volunteered on Earthwatch expeditions. While she had heard of Earthwatch in the past, this was her first real exposure to the organization.

But her ties to Earthwatch were only just beginning. In 2010, she gave a talk on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she met Earthwatch’s Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman. Three years later, she spoke again at a fundraiser in Seattle about the relationship with her volunteers and their importance in her research, which Stan also attended. He recognized her passion for environmental science and for citizen science, and suggested she write a proposal for an Earthwatch research project. In 2015, Cristina launched her first Earthwatch expedition: Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies.

“The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.” – Cristina Eisenberg

During the Westward expansion, large carnivorous predators were wiped out to eliminate human settlement interactions as well as increase the availability of game. These actions resulted in a boom in herbivore populations. At the same time, fire was suppressed in order to protect forest resources and human interests. Funded by Parks Canada, Earthwatch, the Kainai First Nation, and the AGL Foundation, Cristina’s research examines the effects that these conditions have had on the species within Waterton Lakes National Park, a biodiversity hotspot located in Alberta, Canada. With the natural recolonization of wolves and use of large prescribed fires, the area has experienced drastic change.

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

In September of 2014, she was hired as Earthwatch’s Lead Scientist, and more recently assumed the role of Chief Scientist. With more than 10 years of field experience under her belt, Cristina is a scientist who is “attached to the natural world.” She has had some exciting experiences in the field, including a memorable 24-hour period in May pulling transect tape in a blizzard as wolves silently hunted behind her, or watching as an elusive alpha female wolf devoured a fully grown elk. Her work more recently includes working alongside the aboriginal Kainai Tribe, where she is supporting efforts to update their timberland management plan to protect their sacred lands.

While Cristina is now stationed at Earthwatch’s headquarters in Boston, each May she returns to the field with a group of volunteers, continuing the conservation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Her research has and will continue to unfold the ecological mysteries of this area, while posing new questions for years to come.

7 Instances of Earthwatch Being Thankful

Earthwatch has enjoyed another year of inspiring connections, reaching out globally through educators, companies and public volunteers while continuing to inform environmental policy. And frankly, we couldn’t have done it without Earthwatchers like you.

  1. 3,153 volunteers joined an Earthwatch Expedition and contributed 141,518 hours of research – Individuals ranging from teachers, to students, to people looking to make a differenceduring their time off all dedicated their time and money to work alongside professional scientists to help tackle pressing environmental challenges that matter. Thank you!

    Earthwatch Volunteers on Shark Conservation in Belize (photo credit: Hannah-Blake)

    Earthwatch Volunteers on Shark Conservation in Belize (photo credit: Hannah-Blake)

  2. More than 1,800 individuals and organizations have made donations to our Annual Fund – These generous contributions made at events from New York to London or via tradional channels via online, check or phone all support scientists and volunteers in the field, produce research outcomes, and provide experiential learning opportunities for many audiences while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thank you!

    Earthwatch Gala in New York City Event with CEO Ed Wilson with Jorge Colmenares, Bill Moomaw and Kevin Anton. (Photo credit: Watermark Photography)

    Earthwatch Gala in New York City Event with CEO Ed Wilson with Jorge Colmenares, Bill Moomaw and Kevin Anton. (Photo credit: Watermark Photography)

  3. 276 corporate partners have built a relationship with Earthwatch – These organizations have worked with Earthwatch to help develop their internal staff and external customers by participating in programs to help fund and conduct research. Thank you!

    Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts & Charles River Watershed Association in Boston.

    Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts & Charles River Watershed Association in Boston.

  4. 193 scientists and 152 field team leaders have helped oversee research programs this year – No Earthwatch project would be possible if not for the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to plan and lead them, often with incredibly tight resources, to help make the world a better place. Thank you!

    Lead scientist from one of more than 50 Earthwatch Expeditions, When Archosaurs Attacked and Reptiles Ruled Texas. (Photo credit: Arlington Archosaur Site)

    Lead scientist, Derek Main, from one of more than 50 Earthwatch Expeditions, When Archosaurs Attacked and Reptiles Ruled Texas. (Photo credit: Arlington Archosaur Site)

  5. More than 100 employees and volunteer staff – These folks come in to work every day in offices all over the globe with a passion to make the world a better place. Whether they create programs, help make sure that the public is aware of and getting involved with all that Earthwatch does, or work behind the scenes, these folks (and my colleagues) need to be celebrated. Thank you!

    The Earthwatch Boston office - each in costume as their favorite Expedition.

    The Earthwatch Boston office – each in costume as their favorite Expedition.

  6. The 110,000 Earthwatchers who stay involved with our organization every single day – Whether you read this Unlocked blog, our bi-weekly Extras newsletter, or share pictures or ideas on our Facebook or Twitter pages, without brand ambassadors like you, Earthwatch wouldn’t be able to get its message out there. Thank you!

    Earthwatch on Facebook - Just one of many ways Earthwatchers communicate with us and each other every day!

    Earthwatch on Facebook – Just one of many ways Earthwatchers communicate with us and each other every day!

  7. To our Board, advisors, and any other humans or animals we may have overlooked, thank you for your ongoing support – We couldn’t have done it without our entire Earthwatch family.

    Thanks for helping across all our programs, including wildlife, like the Giant Pandas in China.

    Thanks for helping across all our programs, including wildlife, like the Giant Pandas in China.

Thank you!

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Supply and demand. That is how most vacation packages are sold. If there are a few openings and a lot of interest, price goes up. If there are many openings and not much interest, price goes down.

Earthwatch Expeditions are neither vacation packages, nor tourism trips. If you want to hug a koala for a photo op, Earthwatch may not be for you. But if you want to traverse the Great Otway National Park while conducting valuable research on koala habitats to understand the impact of climate change on their population, you might find Earthwatch to be a unique opportunity. As a result of this difference, the way Earthwatch arrives at cost for its more than 50 expeditions all over the world varies significantly from how the travel sector creates its prices. It’s a science of its own.

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

The Average Cost is Anything But Average
A standard length Earthwatch Expedition ranges from $825 to $4,675 – that’s £525 to £2,550 for those of you in the United Kingdom. This cost, called a “contribution” since Earthwatch is a non-profit, is in many cases tax-deductible (in the U.S. at least). Thus, the true cost to Earthwatchers can be 25% to 33% less, come tax time, depending on what tax bracket you fall in, and assuming you itemize your donations.

Breaking Down an Expedition
About 57% of the contribution goes as a Field Grant to the scientists managing your Expedition. This varies based on the duration of the expedition and the research being conducted.

Typical costs include supplies, equipment, research permits, rent, utilities, and the hiring of local cooks or drivers, as well as food, accommodation, and local transport costs. On Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in The Bahamas for instance, some of the costs include transect tapes to map and measure coral, laptops, satellite imagery, fish tags, ID books, and flow meters.

On one wildlife project, I was surprised to learn that a set of radio collars to track large animals costs $6500!

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Earthwatch costs incorporate much more than a traveler would get from a tour operator. Still, there is an expectation from participants that their contributions should be similar.

We are constantly walking an incredibly fine line: Trying to keep the cost of participation accessible to the public, versus not undermining the research itself or the amenities for the public volunteers. Earthwatch is constantly fundraising to increase support for its projects, thereby keeping volunteers’ contribution to the overall research costs at a manageable level.

In some instances, a portion of Field Grant costs are underwritten by a corporate sponsor or generous donor who contributes money to help fund the expedition costs. For instance, if $10,000 is underwritten on a project, a portion of that can be used to offset the volunteers’ contribution, or to fund other elements of the researcher’s project, such as much needed equipment or additional staff.

20% is spent on safety and welfare measures.
It is critical to conduct political, meteorological, and physical risk assessments, as well as create and manage health and safety procedures, 24/7. Earthwatch must also assure research scientists are fully trained on these measures.

12% is spent for Earthwatch to promote and provide information on Expeditions.
The more volunteers who join a project, the more successful all aspects of that project will be – from the team dynamic, to the amount of data collected. Our website and Annual Research Guide are two of the key ways in which we reach the public.

8% is spent on preparing volunteers for their Expedition.
This includes helping volunteers choose and sign up for an expedition, collecting and carefully reviewing each volunteer’s forms, preparing and providing expedition Briefings before participants head into the field, answering all volunteer questions, ranging from travel itineraries to clothes to bring, and working to ensure Earthwatchers are thoroughly prepared for their Expedition experience.

3% is spent on medical and evacuation insurance, travel insurance, and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions of travel.
For instance, if participants leave a carbon footprint from jet fuel used to travel to an expedition, we offset that carbon by investing in wind farms, biomass energy, or other community projects.

New research projects have challenges of their own – and Earthwatch often introduces up to dozen new research projects per year. It typically costs between $45,000 and $80,000 to start up a new project. Since contribution costs typically do not cover all costs related to starting a new project, Earthwatch must actively raise money from other sources to cover set-up costs so they are not passed to our volunteers.

Discovering What Else Goes Into the Cost of an Expedition
To solve some of the mysteries that still remained for me personally tied to Expedition contributions, I spoke with Stacey Monty, a Business Planner at Earthwatch who oversees Expedition budgets. I asked Stacey what some of her biggest challenges were when finalizing the budgets with our scientists.

“We set our volunteer contributions based on the overall research costs, spread over how many people we expect to join. Many of our expedition costs are fixed, meaning they are the same no matter how many people join a team. For example: we cannot buy one-third of a boat, house, laptop, or flight to bring research staff to the site. So if fewer volunteers sign up, there is actually greater cost per person. Predicting how many volunteers will join next season’s teams is the most challenging piece of the puzzle. We look at historic volunteer bookings, changes to the research, travel trends, and geo-politics. For instance, if an area gets bad press and the public perceives instability, we will decrease our projections of volunteers.

As another example, if we decrease the number of days of an expedition due to volunteer feedback, we may assume there will be greater public interest, that we’ll get more people, and that we can possibly charge less overall.

Also, because of the nature of field work, it can be hard to predict costs. Sometimes researchers aren’t exactly sure what they want to do until they see results from the prior field season, or complete a given activity. This is especially true when costing a first-year project. Project budgets can change quite a lot in the second year.”

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Since there are so many projections in developing final costs, it struck me that there might be risk. I was curious to what extent.

“There are many variables in play when it comes to determining costs and setting a contribution that will cover those costs – while still being affordable from the public’s perspective. If we don’t recruit as many people as we thought we were going to recruit Earthwatch suffers financially. Hopefully, this is offset by programs where we recruit more volunteers than we expected.”

At the end of the day, demand clearly still plays a role. Potential Earthwatchers can choose from other volunteering options during their time off. The hope is that they recognize that a contribution to Earthwatch has a real impact on environmental questions being asked by researchers all over the world , will provide an experience of a lifetime, and is worth every penny.

Those wishing to support Earthwatch with a contribution may do so at http://www.earthwatch.org/getinvolved.

Turning a Concept into an Expedition

Have you ever wondered what research is fun, important, and inspirational enough to build an Expedition around?

It is an interesting question indeed. Most non-profits support a single mission, such as curing cancer, helping the homeless, or supporting victims of devastation. Earthwatch is different. While the organization as a whole does indeed have a mission to engage and empower people to help with scientific research, each of its more than 50 expeditions has its own purpose, too. And for the scientist leading the research on any given program, nothing in the world is more important.

Mark Chandler is the Director of Research at Earthwatch, and he is international traveler himself. In fact, he recently returned from a 15-day family vacation to Tanzania with his family and three children.  At the office, he is responsible for oversight of scientific research on each of our programs, and walked me through the process of how Earthwatch goes about selecting new expeditions to add to the roster.

Mark Chandler, Earthwatch Research Director, on Costa Rican Coffee From Community to Cup expedition.

Mark Chandler, Earthwatch Research Director,
Costa Rican Coffee From Community to Cup expedition.

Scientific Research Request Leads to More Than 100 Concept Notes
“Each year, we look at our portfolio to see if there are major gaps in a conservation science area, or areas that we know participants want to go, but where we don’t have programs today. Then we draft a Request for Proposal, and distribute it as widely as possible. We notify prospective scientists, including past Earthwatch scientists, people we’ve met at conferences, as well post to online message boards. We give everybody about one month to submit a short ‘Concept Note’ that provides a high level idea of what program they think would work, why it’s important, what volunteers would be doing, and what the basic logistics would be.”

I learned that in any given year, Earthwatch receives between 100 and 120 various concept notes. That’s a lot of science to choose from.

“We have an internal review process that looks at whether the science addresses key research themes that Earthwatch focuses on: ocean health, archaeology, climate change or wildlife and ecosystems. We try to understand whether there are meaningful tasks that volunteers can do to be engaged. Is the research credible from a science and education perspective? Is the location and are the activities going to meet our health and safety standards? Are we likely to find a sufficient number of volunteers to make it worthwhile for the science or for the program’s finances to work. It basically comes down to does it hit mission criteria? Is it safe? And can we recruit enough volunteers?”

About 90 Concept Notes Advance to Review
Of the concept notes, Mark informed me that about 90 make it to a formal ‘Review’ process.

“We sit around a conference room with coffee and treats and go through them all, and say ‘Hey, what about this one. Yes or no?’ To each. One by one.”

Just About 30 Scientists Have An Opportunity to Submit a Proposal
Mark informed me that Earthwatch only asks for full proposals from about thirty lead scientists, referred to as ‘PIs’ or Principal Investigators. So only about one-third to one-quarter of programs remain.

“Each prospective PI is engaged in a phone call to answer their questions and talk about what could make their program more scientifically interesting, fun and inspirational for participants, and how the logistics and accommodations are envisioned. A lot of the details come down to the running of the program: What activities can volunteers do, where will they stay, and how long is it?”

Only 20 Proposals Make It To Final Consideration
Typically, about 20 proposals are submitted. It struck me as odd that scientists would make it this far in the process, only to drop out.

“Perhaps a third drop out because there just isn’t a match from the phone interview and the email correspondence. We usually pick six to eight from those who do submit a proposal to add as new program.”

Eight New Programs Were Added for 2013
Heading in to 2013, eight new programs were added to the Earthwatch portfolio. I was curious what caused some programs to be added, while others fell by the wayside. After all, these decisions ultimately determined where critical research would be conducted – and where it wouldn’t be.

Mark added: “Alison Leslie is the PI on the Malawi program, Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve. She has run about three Earthwatch expeditions. We knew that whatever she does is good. So when we saw her submit something, we knew this would be good – even though it was her first non-crocodile  project. The science looks interesting and she works well with volunteers. The type of question she is looking at is really interesting. What will animals do when they are re-introduced into the wild?”

A Hippo Family (photo credit Alison Leslie)

A Hippo Family (photo credit Alison Leslie)

In contrast, Mark explained another deciding factors on chosing an expedition: “The chimpanzee program, Tracking Chimps Through the Trees of Uganda, had a much more interesting discussion. Initially, Uganda was not necessarily a hot destination for us. We felt that the public didn’t necessarily perceive Uganda as safe. Of course, Earthwatch would never send participants anywhere that wasn’t completely safe, and we have a rigorous vetting process tied to volunteer safety. We knew that Budongo Forest Reserve was the epicenter of primate diversity. Chimpanzees are a big draw. And the research seeks to understand the interaction between plants and chimps. Plus, Dr. Babweteera is a local Ugandan researcher, and we wanted to support that. A local scientist in a hotspot jumped out at us.”

Group of Sonso Community Chimpanzees in Uganda

Group of Sonso Community Chimpanzees in Uganda

After such a vigorous selection process, I was quite curious to learn from Mark what the reaction from the scientists were once they were notified that their proposal was selected.

“Excited and thrilled. Also, a little bit of ‘I know there is a lot of work to do.’ We need to work out exactly how everything will run. Earthwatch is recognized as being incredibly organized and thorough, and we need to train scientists in the field incredibly well so that volunteers will have a great in-field experience.”

Time will tell whether volunteers will be interested in the research and sign up to participate.

“Sometimes, you just have to have the feeling that the science is sound, and that people are going to like it.”

Are you a scientist or researcher interested in submitting a Concept Note for consideration for 2014 funding?  Respond to the Earthwatch Request for Research Proposals today!

Through a Teacher’s Journey, Students Experience the World

There’s an adage that says “Those who can, DO. And those who can’t, TEACH.”

Gretel von Bargen is a biology teacher at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington who’s been haunted by this statement ever since she began teaching. Gretel can “DO” – she always could. Ever since her collegiate days at the University of Washington in the late ‘90’s, she’s had a passion for biology, chemistry and anthropology. And ever since she received her first Earthwatch catalog in the mail, she daydreamed about where in the world she wanted to go.

Gretel von Bargen, Biology teacher from Skyline High School on Earthwatch Expedition in Ecuador

Gretel von Bargen, Biology teacher from Skyline High School on Earthwatch Expedition in Ecuador

From a Fellow to a Leader
In 2004, Gretel earned a fellowship from Earthwatch funded by the National Geographic Society and went to Brazil to join the Conserving the Pantanal expedition. On this expedition, she and other adventuresome and innovative educators volunteered to help collect data on animals and the conservation process in the world’s largest wetland. Once and for all, Gretel wanted to prove to herself that she did not become a teacher because she could not cut it as a field biologist – in fact, she could do both!

Gretel filled me in: “While assisting with the field research in the Pantanal, I found myself performing activities and then thinking to myself how I could bring my experiences back into the classroom.  By bringing stories of authentic science into my lessons, my students will see the validity of what I teach.  By telling stories of caiman and jaguars, I will forge a connection with my students that will enable them to want to learn from me, to be interested in what I have to say.  I wrote a list of advanced biology lesson ideas nearly two pages long, based on ideas gleamed from experiences in the field.”

Beginning in 2009, in addition to bringing her field research learning to the classroom, Gretel brought her classroom to the field to participate in real-world, hands-on science. She even brought her husband, Curtis, along to chaperone. That year, Gretel brought 17 of her students, aged 16-17, to the Bahamian Reef Survey expedition to monitor coral reef health. Since then, she’s organized and led groups of students to Ecuador on Canopies, Climate, and Critters of the Ecuadorian Rainforest and to Trinidad on Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles. She’s even scheduled to bring a class back to Trinidad in the summer of 2013 for her 3rd trip there.

Gretel explained: “Turtles and Trinidad catch my fancy. Trinidad is culturally different enough to feel exotic for the kids, but it’s also safe enough so they don’t feel at risk. They can speak English. The government is stable. The students and parents feel safe. It’s rural, and most of these kids haven’t seen how the rest of the world lives, where these people are very happy, but may have a tenth of the material goods of what my students have.”

Students and Leatherback Sea Turtles in Trinidad

Students and Leatherback Sea Turtles in Trinidad

Students Learn Life Lessons Without Even Knowing It
In the field, students are so in awe of their surroundings that they don’t even realize they are learning valuable life lessons. From learning about cultures, to assisting with animal conservation, to being motivated by the impact that one individual can make – it’s inspirational.

We Can Be Just as Happy With Less
Gretel shared a conversation she had with a student while sitting in the back of a truck on the way to the beach to look for turtles:

“It was a bumpy road. We were bobbling up and down in the truck. And a 17-year old boy who is financially well-off turns to me and says to me: ‘The people. They’re so happy.’ He thought it was amazing they were so happy and they didn’t have iPods, GameBoys, internet and cable TV. It was then that he realized people do not need material things to be happy. It was the first time he ever experienced that.”

Even beliefs about food in other cultures were brought into question. Students were getting tired of eating rice and beans every day when they were used to eating whatever they want back home, any hour of the day.

I viewed the fact that students knew that they were missing their food as an opportunity for learning. We chatted about how being a picky eater is a problem of privilege, how most people in the world cannot simply open a refrigerator and pick from a selection of food choices. Students need to change the way they look at things. It makes them realize what they might take for granted at home.”

Lessons From the Field in Ecuador

Lessons From the Field in Ecuador

To Preserve Wildlife, Act
While there are clearly life lessons that can be learned in any foreign land, I really wanted to know what Gretel’s fascination with turtles was.

“The turtles are really inspirational. When you see them the first time, you realize turtles have been coming onto the beach just like they are today for 65 million years. For the kids to actually be able to go up and touch these endangered animals, you are really lucky. For them to have that kind of experience is great. The students are making an impact. They can see their data being counted and tallied, and realize the importance of being accurate and thorough with their data collection.”

One Person Can Make a Difference
Leatherback Sea Turtles is run in partnership between Earthwatch and Nature Seekers, a community-based conservation organization formed to protect nesting turtles. Their main conservation efforts are based around tagging turtles for tracking and patrolling the beach to protect the turtles and their nests. What is most impressive, though, is that this organization was started by one person with a passion and drive to make a difference: Susan Lakhan Baptiste.

“The fact that Susan started Nature Seekers by herself is a wonderful lesson for my students tied to the impact that one person can make. Her saying ‘I am not going to take the slaughtering of this animal’ has turned into an international conservation organization.”

The Teacher Gets it Done
While it is clear that students get a lot out of group trips, none of it would be possible without teachers like Gretel von Bargen – and it starts long before they ever get into the field, and continues even after they return.

“Recruitment is very easy for me, because there is a lot of word of mouth from the kids. I just say we have 14 spots that are first come, first served. We started school two weeks ago and our slots are already full for 2013.

Once I have a team set, we have a monthly preparation meeting with students and families and talk about what to expect culturally, with their health, and about preparing for the strenuous work. We’ll also practice scientific methods that will be used in the field. There are usually about nine or ten meetings. You can definitely feel that the closer the expedition gets, the more the excitement builds.

When I return from the field, I take what the kids have written to me in their journals and use it to write a debrief that goes to all the kids and their families. The parents like to see that the money they have invested has made an impact.”

Once in the field, Gretel lets the lead scientist do the teaching while she takes on more of a den-mother role, and is part of the team.

“The fact that we are living together in the heat and humidity of the tropics is quite bonding, and it happens pretty quickly. I try not to take an ‘I’m an authority’ approach. The PI’s [principle investigators] do that. What is wonderful for me is when student can participate and ask really good questions to the PI’s. It makes me feel proud. I try not to be too much of a teacher when I’m there. I’m just one of the team.”

The task can be hardest when the team returns home.

“As the expedition comes to an end, the students can’t believe it’s going to be over. They are going to miss it so much, and are sad to leave. For the seniors especially, when I drop the kids off at the airport, it could be the last time I see them, as they then might be off to college. It can be emotional. I have pictures of us at the airport crying as we say goodbye to each other.”

The goodbyes won’t last long, as I’m sure Gretel’s first 2013 preparation meeting is right around the corner!

Gretel's Team from Sammamish, Washington with Leatherback Sea Turtles

Gretel’s Team from Sammamish, Washington with Leatherback Sea Turtles

Learn more about Earthwatch High School Groups.