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Some companies see value in far-flung field trips for employees

Through a partnership with environmental organization Earthwatch.

Employees at companies partnered with environmental organization Earthwatch get research opportunities typically reserved for renowned scientists. Flickr/Creative Commons

From studying caterpillars and climate change in Arizona, to examining erosion of cliffs in Maine’s Acadia National Park, employees at companies partnered with environmental organization Earthwatch get research opportunities typically reserved for renowned scientists.

“If you’re going to do any work with the environment, the private sector is a huge part of that,’’ Nichole Cirillo, director of corporate and foundation relations for Earthwatch, told Boston.com.

That’s why Earthwatch, an international nonprofit supporting global conservation and sustainable business practices, has partnerships with companies like Ernst & Young, Alcoa, EMC, Sony Pictures, and UPS, Cirillo explained. The Boston Business Journal recently talked to a few Boston-based companies who have taken advantage of the program.

The partnerships allow corporations to send groups of employees into the field with research scientists to learn about global environmental concerns relevant to their business. These field trips often take place in remote corners of the world, with workers traveling as far away as France, India, Mexico, Malaysia, China, Costa Rica, and even the Arctic.

Environmental issues they study range from wildlife conservation and sustainable farming to freshwater preservation. Starbucks, for example, sends stakeholders to Costa Rica to study soil health and its impact on coffee plants.

“Bringing people out into the fields and meeting these scientists, getting involved with their research, that’s what opens the mind,’’ Cirillo said. She hopes employees come away from trips with a sustainability lens through which they view life.

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Employees on their research trips with Earthwatch:

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Not all employees get chosen for Earthwatch trips, of course, and the process companies use to select the lucky individuals varies greatly.

“Ernst & Young is very interested in emerging talent, while Alcoa is very democratic,’’ Cirillo said. “They want to make sure everyone from the factory floor to the boardroom gets to participate.’’ Others, like UPS, like to bring their clients out into the field, asking questions like, ‘How can I deliver your product in a more sustainable way?’ Cirillo added.

Companies don’t have to send their employees all the way to the North Pole to get involved, however.

Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), for example, partnered with Earthwatch to expose a group of employees to a conservation project in Greater Boston.

“Traditionally, Earthwatch gets people involved through travel to international locations like the Great Barrier Reef,’’ Kyle Cahill, the director of sustainability and environmental health at BCBS, told Boston.com. “They developed a scaled-down program called ‘Scientist for a Day,’ which allowed us and other companies to be participant scientists on a particular topic regionally.’’

The group from BCBS researched a regional water system – the Muddy River, a series of brooks and ponds that run through sections of Boston’s Emerald Necklace — for a day, learning about water quality and how to test it.

“We learned how urban systems like Boston can impact water quality—what we do in our homes, extreme rain events,’’ Cahill said. “The employees gained a better understanding of how natural resources affect our health and the quality of our city.’’ Cahill said he also noticed that the time spent outside the office had a team-building effect on employees.

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One employee was so struck by the importance of water quality that after leaving BCBS, she began volunteering in Canton doing water-quality testing, Cahill said.

“We think we have a very robust environmental program here, but having us out in the field was so powerful,’’ he added.

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