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Charles Darwin goes 21st century

Back in the day, science was often relegated to wealthy, self-funded explorers and “gentlemen scientists” the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton.  One could argue that they were the original “citizen scientists” but back then you had to have money and time to explore the world and formulate big thoughts. For the average citizen, science was an expensive endeavor accessible to the privileged – and certainly not something in which you were encouraged to participate.

Flash forward 200 years… and imagine that Carlos Darwin, an inquisitive and smart kid from a not-so-wealthy family is able to use a smartphone to document the finches on each of the Galapagos Islands where he lives?  And his cousin Josefina Darwin, is able to send him pictures of finches she is seeing in her backyard in New Jersey?  And they are able to share their photos and contribute their observations of the natural world with people around the globe – including researchers who were looking for changes in species distribution due to climate change.  Now we’re talkin’ citizen science!

What if all those budding “Darwins” in OUR classes and communities used their cell phones for more than Facebook and Snapchat?  What if they spent time outdoors, exploring their backyards, parks, woodlands, and swamps using their mobile phones to document all the biodiversity they can find?  What if there was an app for THAT?

Welcome to the world of Project Noah –Networked Organisms And Habitats.logotype

Backed by National Geographic, Project Noah is mobilizing a new generation of nature explorers and average citizens around the world to capture information on biodiversity.  Now instead of roaming the neighborhood with a butterfly net, collecting jars, and a bulky field guide you can simply take your smart phone and snap pictures using the Project Noah app.  With a few key strokes you can add gps coordinates and field notes and send them whizzing through cyberspace to the Project Noah portal where people from around the world can check out what’s going on in your backyard.  Unsure of what the organism is?  Project Noah “rangers” are on call to help with species identification and natural history notes.

Here at Amazon Workshops, we are thrilled to be partnering with Project Noah to create a virtual field guide to our study sites in the Amazon and are working with educators across the country to bring our Amazon images into their classrooms!

Project Noah’s co-founder, Yasser Ansari, believes that “not only is there an educational need and an environmental need but a deep, deep human need for all of us to reconnect with our planet.”  His goal is to “to bring back that wonderment… to reignite that curiosity for the natural world that we had when we were younger.”

Don’t you think Charles Darwin would agree?  It’s no secret that Mr. Darwin loved poking around the natural world more than the dry academics of the university.

“…no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles… I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas!  It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”   — Charles Darwin

Betcha Mr. Darwin would have appreciated a smartphone with the Project Noah app at this moment!

JOIN THE DISCUSSION!  Are you a citizen scientist?  Do you use Project Noah?  Tell us your thoughts about the power and promise of citizen science!

Bags are packed, equipment checked, guidebooks read and re-read.  We are ready! We already know more than the average Joe about the Amazon.  If we were preparing for a test, we’d expect an A+.  But as the plane slips below the clouds, and we catch our first glimpse of the rainforest…a vast carpet of green with only the snaking curves of the Amazon River to give a sense of scale, we begin to realize we don’t really understand this place. This is the place that overwhelmed Charles Darwin, who once described it as “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.”  The PBS documentary movies describe it as crawling, slithering, clinging, and jumping with amazing wildlife – much of it unkown to science. This is the place we’ve been told is critical to the health of our planet…a place that is rapidly disappearing unless we take action..but we don’t have the first clue how to even begin…

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As travelers to the Amazon, we are fortunate to experience one of the world’s most astonishing and important ecosystems – the tropical rainforest. In preparation for this epic adventure, we have done our homework and can reel off the facts. We know that the world’s rainforests:

• support more than ½ of the world’s biodiversity;
• provide new medicines, foods, and other products of global economic value;
• impact local, regional, and global climates-protecting against floods, drought, and erosion;
• store vast amounts of carbon and help to mitigate global climate change;
• provide food and shelter to indigenous people;
• and are a source of inspiration and wonder.

We know as the world’s largest intact rainforest, the Amazon is a critically important global resource.  We’ve read that it is unrivalled in its scale and its complexity. We might even know that it makes up of 50% of the world’s remaining rainforest and encompasses an area greater than the continental USA.

If we are really serious about our studies, we also know that the Amazon harbors least 10% of the word’s known biodiversity, with new species being discovered at the rate of 1 every 3 days (more than 1,200 new species in the last decade). We know that the Amazon River system accounts for more than 15% of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. We can even state with some confidence that approximately 350 ethnic groups are sheltered by its forests and sustained by its waters – and that a few “uncontacted” groups still exist.

GREAT! We can recite all these facts and more. Surely we deserve an A+ and can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But wait…what job is well done? Has our fact finding led to something greater? Has it made a difference? Have we forged any kind of connection to this place will move us beyond factual recall and into the realm of inspiration, wonder, and action?

Last week we introduced the topic of place-based learning and how it can be used to move us beyond factual awareness and into active participation and deep understanding. In Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Mitchell Thomashow, a place-based education guru, suggests that to be actively engaged in understanding a place you must acquire

“…a range of facilities – the willingness to plunge your senses into the living landscape, the ability to ask good, scientific questions and develop approaches to finding empirical answers; the imaginative capacity to use the natural world as inspiration for artwork, photography, stories, essays, music, and poetry; the open-mindedness and reflective ability to be perennially engaged by the wonder, insight, and meaning derived of from your observations.”

These are the ingredients which will open the doors to understanding a place – even a place like the Amazon.

We are looking forward to “plunging into the living landscape” of the Amazon this summer, armed with the facts, but ready to ask good questions, ignite our imaginations, and engage with wonder. We are ready to get that A+ in Amazon 101!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Leave a reply below. Have you been to the Amazon? Are you going? What questions do you have? What do you want to know more about? How do you make meaning in new and different places and situations?