In this blog post Benjamin Haywood talks about the power of connected learning through citizen science and his new research ‘Shapeshifting attachment: Exploring multi‐dimensional people–place bonds in place‐based citizen science‘ out now as part of our cross-journal Citizen Science Special Feature.

You can also read the authors’ plain language summary here: Do bonds between people and the places they study matter in citizen science?

Some COASST participants join the program out of a desire to contribute to a deeper understanding and stewardship of a place that is important to them, while others develop strong bonds with the places they survey over time through the program. Photo credit: Steve Weileman.

One of the greatest strengths of citizen science is the fact that participants are often deeply connected to and “in-tune” with the specific places and ecological communities they observe, monitor, or examine through such programs. It is hard to imagine someone could interact with, explore, and, in some cases, rely on a place to meet a material or cultural need without gaining a sense of knowledge and understanding of that place. This kind of rich people-place relationship is at the heart of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science program of focus in the article Shapeshifting attachment: Exploring multi‐dimensional people–place bonds in place‐based citizen science.

Through a collaboration between coastal residents, natural resource management agencies and environmental organizations, COASST works to translate long-term monitoring into effective marine conservation solutions and responsible stewardship. Building on the wealth of knowledge participants have about the places they monitor for the program, participants learn to “see” and understand their place through the lens of science in order to develop a picture of what’s “normal” in that place. The result is a rigorous, carefully verified, locally relevant process of monitoring, managing, and protecting nearshore marine ecosystems.

Recognizing that the COASST program is not alone among citizen science projects in elevating the knowledge and understanding of people who live in and know specific places to better understand and steward those places, this article draws from scholarship on people-place bonds to help understand the growing practice of citizen science. Years of research with COASST participants has revealed that not only can bonds with important places motivate citizens to participate in scientific monitoring efforts, but that perhaps those bonds also shape the way participants perceive and collect information about those places, interact with the spaces themselves, and think about the information they collect.

Recognizing the influence of context on experience and learning, this research explores whetherthe presence, nature, and development of connections between citizen scientists and the places they study might provide opportunities to enhance science learning and scientific literacy alongside research and resource management efforts. The extensive network of COASST participants across a wide geographic area (from the United States of California to Alaska) and over a significant time period (many COASSTers have participated for 5, 10, and even 15 years) provided an ideal population to study.

COASST participants monitor nearshore marine environments for beach-cast seabird carcasses before carefully analyzing each to identify and catalogue relevant conditions. Wing measurements, as seen here, provide an important indicator for the identification process. Photo credit: Marnie and John Schumacher.

The research raises as many questions as it provides answers – and we highlight four major research opportunities to study the hypothesized links between people-place bonds, citizen science, and learning outcomes to stimulate further research in the article. We believe this line of inquiry will help advance three critical opportunities to move the practice of citizen science forward, including:

  1. The development of evidence-based practices to broaden participation in citizen science through culturally sensitive and relevant informal science experiences connected to places of value;
  2. Fostering boundary-crossing initiatives that encourage information sharing, learning, and decision-making across citizen science programs and institutions through data sharing networks that support collaborative governance of shared places of interest;
  3. Theoretical frameworks and evaluative methods that provide citizen science programs the tools to encourage participants to document the personal and social outcomes of citizen science participation in a qualitative manner.

On the whole, the overarching goal of this research effort is to facilitate intentional and inclusive citizen science project and curriculum designs that are culturally and personally relevant, optimize participant retention and outcomes, and protect data quality and utility.