Across the U.S., volunteers collect vital data for research projects. “Older folks tend to have spare time and a desire to stay socially connected,” says Darlene Cavalier of SciStarter. “They enjoy being part of a process that advances science."
Omega R. and Brenda A. Wilson, both 69, from Mebane, N.C., organized residents to collect water samples through a project with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That effort led to federal grants to mitigate contamination. “In our community,” Omega says, “citizen science addresses issues of human beings in their environment."
Here's how other volunteers are helping researchers in their own communities.
Mary White, 67
White hunches over a table, aiming her camera at a sprig of wildflowers on a velvet cloth. She snaps photos in natural light, then darkens the room and shoots under an ultraviolet light. The petals appear to change color, with spots that glow. Not only are these photos captivating, they also can help researchers better understand how butterflies, bees and other pollinators are attracted to various kinds of plants.
White, an amateur photographer from Port St. Lucie, Fla., took up this pursuit a few years ago through Florida's Master Naturalist Program at her local extension office. “You get to know yourself through nature,” she says. “You also connect with the world and can become a force in preserving it for our children."
Larry Fizz, 60
Fizz, of Pottstown, Pa., is an engineering consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. On lunch breaks, he helps NASA. Satellites capture images of the tops of clouds, but scientists need data from a ground perspective, too."I'm just a regular guy who goes out to make observations, snap some photos and complete an online form,” Fizz says. “I feel that, in my own little way, I'm helping quantify how human activities affect the environment."
Page Dabney, 68
Dabney is a financial adviser and outdoor enthusiast from Bozeman, Mont., who volunteers through a group called Adventure Scientists. He has collected water samples for a study on microplastic pollution. One site was 31/2 miles into Yellowstone National Park with “three feet of snow on the ground, and it was 12 degrees. We went in on snowshoes and cross-country skis, and I had to crack through the ice with a hatchet to get the sample." He also has chased and cataloged butterflies for a study on pollinators and will be taking tree core samples for research on important species.
The Thursday Tree Huggers
This group of people, all in their 70s and 80s, monitors seasonal changes in plants — such as bud breaks and unfolding leaves — at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. “Each tree is like an adventure because they do all of these things, but at different times,” says Sandy Wolkenberg, 77, a retired preschool teacher. The group's observations may help scientists monitor the effects of climate change. “It's been a life-changing experience for me because it's allowed me to connect with nature and my fellow tree huggers in such a meaningful way,” Wolkenberg says.