October 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW3

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Scientific Field Expeditions as Non-Formal Environmental Extension Education

Participatory Environmental Action Research (PEAR) is one way to learn about natural resources and the environment. Expeditions that encourage participation of volunteers are approximations of PEAR. They offer opportunities for volunteers and scientists to combine efforts and share ideas about ways of understanding and creating a better world. They are a valuable means of obtaining non-formal, hands-on education about natural resources and conservation issues.

Albert A. Einsiedel, Jr.
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Internet address: bert.einsiedel@ualberta.ca

Extension practitioners hold that learning by doing is one of the more effective ways by which people learn. This experiential approach occurs in scientific research expeditions that include non-scientist volunteers and emphasize action strategies. Volunteers demonstrate that they can learn while helping scientists solve or prevent environment problems (Einsiedel, 1994).

The concept of Participatory Environmental Action Research (PEAR) is offered as a framework for discussion. PEAR is a form of non-formal, active learning process that occurs when community members, motivated by a need to solve environmental problems, become actively involved in expeditions or projects that contribute solutions. PEAR can take many forms, such as action research relevant to habitat conservation and restoration, wildlife protection, and sustainable development.

Aside from its obvious benefits to the scientific community, scientific expeditions can be valuable sources of non-formal education for non-scientists and people in the communities who participate in them. Such expeditions are becoming more popular as the boomer segment of the population spends more time and money on education and travel.

In PEAR expeditions, there is a commitment to social transformation through informed citizen participation. Learning is problem-based, voluntary, interdisciplinary, and community- based. Learners are involved in a dynamic process in which issues are analyzed critically, core values are clarified, and action plans are implemented and evaluated.

Ideally, resources for PEAR research come primarily from the community and the knowledge created belongs to the community. Collaboration with other stakeholders is the norm. Occasionally, external facilitators and experts are crucial to the success of the undertaking.

In PEAR expeditions, non-scientists, local residents, and scientists are drawn to a common environmental problem. Ideally, PEAR projects are initiated by local residents in response to issues that are important to the community. For example, an environmental impact assessment of a proposed pulp mill, hydroelectric dam, or a park may offer opportunities for scientists and community volunteers to collaborate.

The success of a PEAR expedition is influenced by the mutual respect and acceptance expressed by all participants. For example, the needs or objectives of the scientists and the lay volunteers must be compatible. Both must have something to give back to the local community. The more relevant the resources are to the needs of the participants, the more likely the experience will be mutually satisfying. This fosters teamwork and group cohesiveness.

The scientists' willingness to accept lay persons as valued members of the research team is crucial. Likewise, community acceptance of the scientists is critical to the expedition's success. This can be a difficult challenge if there is a clash between the scientists' agenda or orientation and alternative views held by local residents and lay volunteers.

Scientists, volunteers, and community residents must also be adaptable to the field conditions and the scientific environment. Non-residents should be respectful of and sensitive to the local culture. It is important to remember that risk of conflict, injury, or culture shock can be managed and minimized with planning.

PEAR expedition organizers must create an environment in which effective learning takes place. Being a good scientist and field research does not always mean being a good adult educator or social change agent. The reverse is also true.

What can be learned by volunteers in scientific expeditions? First, they learn something about the environmental, social, economic, and cultural issues confronting the communities. Volunteers learn how to collect and process research-related information using the techniques prescribed by the researchers. Volunteers learn something about their own home towns in comparison to the project community. Volunteers as well as the investigators learn something about each other. Many friendships are formed, as might be expected when a small group of like- minded people share unusual experiences over a period of time.

Expeditions can provide a rich source of learning experiences not only about the focus of the scientific investigation, but also about the work of scientists, the places where they work, and the environment that provides context for the investigation. Expeditions are living laboratories in which participants achieve personal and professional goals as well as a sense of contributing towards creating new knowledge.

Every expedition offers challenges that demand a lot from volunteers, especially those who have traveled from distant places or from different cultures. They must adapt to the unfamiliar physical and cultural environment while learning many new skills required to be productive members of a scientific research team.

The challenge to the extension professional is to stimulate mutually beneficial collaboration among local people and scientists through PEAR expeditions. Extension agents, who are familiar with the issues that require scientific attention and community input, can facilitate the development of projects that have local relevance. Their knowledge or the community and practical orientation are significant input into the process of conceptualizing the project, developing proposals, networking, project planning and implementation.


Einsiedel, A.A., Jr. (1994). University Extension and conservation education. In M. Brooke & M. Waldron (Eds.), University continuing education in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.