Incorporating Science Into Your Expedition

By Dalal Hanna, National Geographic Explorer, Freshwater Ecologist, PhD Student at McGill University

When you’re out in the woods, opportunities to learn about science are all around you. From the types of trees and plants you find in the forest, to the flow of the river you’re paddling, the quality of the water you’re drinking, or the composition of the rocks you set your tent up on, all of the wonders that surround you can be explained by science, in part. Asking questions like why are things the way they are, how did they come to be that way, and what might make them change in the future is fun and a great way to bring awareness of science that surrounds us during a trip. Here are a few ideas to incorporate science into your expedition.

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Bring natural history information along

Years ago, I was on a trip with a couple of ornithologists in Costa-Rica. Everywhere we went, they carried a ‘traveling library’. Essentially, it was a small bag filled with easy to use guide books about local natural history. The books described the kinds of birds and other species we might spot in the area, the geological history of the region, the types of forests we would see, interesting interactions between local plants and wildlife, and opportunities to forage for edible plants and campfire teas. Basically, a gold mine of scientific information.

Traveling libraries are a great way to learn all about local science during your expedition and share and exchange knowledge with all the people on your trip. They can be consulted by you and other expedition participants at any time, and are certainly worth bringing along in spite of the extra weight. Some of my favourites to include in a traveling library are Petersons bird guides, and Newcombs plant guides. If you want to dive into more detailed information, you might even bring a book about the local ecosystem, like The Boreal Ecosystem. You can also consider using one small electronic device to put all your guides in one compact place. I really enjoy having Scats & Tracks on my Ipod touch during paddling trips. After all, its always nice to know that you’ve run into some wolf poop on a portage trail!

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Bringing equipment & sharing knowledge

When in comes to bringing equipment, a few small items can go a long way. Some of my personal favourites are nets to catch insects, magnifying glasses to inspect your findings, tweezers to pick stuff up with, googles for underwater exploration, binoculars for spotting birds, and of course, a note book to document your findings. Make sure to keep all your fragile equipment in a safe and dry place. Pelican cases are one of my favourite ways to carry these items around.

If you’re interested in sharing knowledge about a particular scientific subject during an expedition one of the best things you can do is prepare in advance. This might not be necessary for things you already know about, but for all the other stuff, it is important to get informed. Of course, you can do this with books, but there are also lots of other ways to learn. One of my favourite ways to learn about cool science is by watching science channels on YouTube, like ASAP Science, or listening to science podcasts. RadioLab is one of my personal favourite podcasts. I’ve recently been thinking about their episode called From Tree to Shinning Tree, where I learnt all about how trees communicate with each other through mushrooms. A topic I’ll now look forward to talking about the next time I visit a forest during an expedition.

Don’t forget about delivery. There are lots of creative ways to share your knowledge, maybe you’ll prepare a mini-lecture or a fun game to engage your audience in learning?

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Making sci-art

Although we don’t always tend to think about it, science and art have gone hand in hand throughout history. Take for example the theory of evolution; when Charles Darwin travelled to the Galápagos Islands in the 1830s he collected several different birds. He later gave them to John Gould to identify, who eventually published these drawings, that helped explain how these very different looking birds were in fact all finches that had a common ancestor.  If it wasn’t for Darwin’s knack for collecting and preserving specimens from nature and Gould’s ability to draw birds really well, the concept of evolution may not be as well-known as it is today.

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Bringing pencils and paper along with you on your trip to draw the plants, animals, and landscapes you see is a great way to integrate some sci-art into your trip. Your drawings may even result in surprising scientific discoveries!

Today, photography is a fun and easily accessible alternative to drawing. Cameras are a great way to document the different species and natural phenomena you spot, and share your findings with others.  You can even use an underwater camera to capture some of the most hidden creatures. As a scientist that specializes in ecology, I use pictures from expeditions all the time to present and explain the research I’m doing.

One of my favourite forms of expedition art is building Herbariums. This is basically a collection of preserved plants, flattened, dried, and mounted onto paper. Using some wood, straps, and paper, you can turn plants you find into beautiful art to bring home.

If you’re planning on collecting samples, make sure that the plants you gather aren’t poisonous, or endangered. You wouldn’t want to end up with Poison Ivy, or contribute to the extinction of a rare species. 

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Collecting samples to help researches make new discoveries

When you head out, it could be that you’re going to a unique place that’s hard to get to, or requires time to reach. Some scientists could only dream of having the skills or time required to go where you’re heading. So, if you’re interested in collecting samples that could be used by researchers, consider reaching out to a scientist doing research in the ecosystem you’ll be visiting. In North-America, lots of scientists have personal websites describing the area they do research in and the type of research they do, with contact information listed. If you have an idea about samples you might be able to collect (like water!), search the web to try and find a scientist you think might be interested in the place you’re heading to and reach out to them, you never know where the conversation will end up.

There are also organizations that collect data using participatory methods that you might be interested in partnering up with. In Québec, Canada, The G3E is an organization that has several citizen science programs for data collection, where you can register and help collect data on water and habitat quality that’s in turn used by scientists from all over. I’m actually using their data right now as part of my PhD research to help understand how protected areas contribute to the provision of water quality in Quebec. If this kind of thing intrigues you, run a quick web search for local citizen science organizations or databases, there is also an increasing number of initiatives popping up where you can store simple data you’ve collected on things like the species you spot or the temperature. Although this might not seem like much, combined, citizen science data has huge strengths. For lots of scientists this is precious information that can make a huge difference when trying to build models, so don’t hesitate to get involved! 

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