Most vacations don't include slogging through piranha-infested waters or tangling with killer bees, but Heather Messner's did. In the summer of 2002, Messner, a science teacher from South Philly, traveled with thirteen others from around the globe to the Pantanal, the world's largest freshwater wetland (at roughly 75,000 square miles, it's about the size of South Dakota), located in central-west Brazil.
They went as volunteers for the Earthwatch Institute, an international, nonprofit organization that connects adventurous travelers with research scientists worldwide. For two or three weeks at a time, these diverse groups of volunteers work alongside research scientists, collecting data as part of long-term studies on critical conservation issues, such as preserving the hyacinth macaw in the Pantanal, tracking mountain lions in the Rockies, or protecting the Cameroon rain forest.
Earthwatch expeditions cost an average of $1,850 per participant, but thanks to a generous fellowship program, teachers can often travel free, provided they agree to share their experience with their students.