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Ready for some research activities of your own? You've seen how Earthwatch teams of scientist and volunteers collect information on tropical forest ecosystems and recognized the importance of each organism that inhabits the forest. You've found out how scientists track the movements of wild cats in Mexico and how to spot caterpillars in Costa Rica. But — the best part of science is doing it on your own.

All you need to start with is curiosity and four of your five senses: your eyes, ears, nose, and hands. Some of the best scientific questions come from careful observations of the world around us. Good record-keeping is also important so a notebook and pencil will be handy for keeping track of all that you see. Finally, have fun, but remember to be gentle with any organisms that you handle!

Exploring Ecosystems Close to Home

  1. Explore a location near you. Choose a specific ecosystem in your backyard or a nearby park. You can focus on a system as small as a garden plot or rotting log or as large as a wooded lot.
  2. Gather Information. What types of plants and animals live there? How do people interact with this natural community? Write down the things you would like to find out about your study site. Sometimes it helps to find out what other people have done before you set out. If you are going to a local park, they may have a visitors center or some written information that might help you. They may even have guides to help you identify some of the plants and animals you have at your study site.
  3. Observe. Make careful observations in your notebook each time you visit your study site. You may have to visit the same place several times to get a good idea of what organisms live there and what is going on.
    • Be sure to note the date, time of day, and the weather each time you visit. Can you think of reasons this might be important?
    • What do you see? Write down the plants and animals that you see. Sometimes you might not actually see the animal, but if you are observant, you will spot some of the clues they leave behind. Caterpillars, for example, eat holes in the leaves, fold or bend leaves to make shelters and even throw their frass around. What might some other animal clues be?
    • Take some photos or draw some pictures of what you see.
    • Look for evidence of the relationships between different organisms? What do they eat? What plants do they use for shelter? Where are they moving to or from?
    • Can you tell how people are interacting with this ecosystem? Are they walking nearby?
    • What changes might you expect over time? Can you think of reasons why? Each time you visit, be sure to record the date, time, and weather along with your new observations.
  4. Research. How can you find out more about these ecosystems and how they are changing as a result of human activity or other circumstances? Make a list of all the possible places and ways you might find this information. Could you ask a person, go to the library, search the Internet?
  5. Share your experience. Science is also about sharing what you learn. You might want to just keep your notebook for yourself, but you might also consider making a poster, model, report, or other project to share with your school, park, or family. You may also find that when you finish your initial study, you have a whole list of new questions to answer about your study site!