Dead seabirds
COASST citizen science volunteers identifying a seabird carcass in Ocean Shores, Washington.

From searching for extraterrestrial life to tracking rainfall, non-experts are increasingly helping to gather information to answer scientific questions.

One of the most established hands-on, outdoor citizen science projects is the University of Washington-based Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, COASST, which trains beachgoers along the West Coast, from California to Alaska, to monitor their local beach for dead birds.

With about 4,500 participants in its 21-year history and roughly 800 active participants today, COASST’s long-term success is now the subject of scientific study in its own right. What makes people join citizen science projects, and what motivates people to stick with them over years?

A UW-led paper published in the July issue of Ecology and Society explores the interests and identities of participants who join and remain active in citizen science. Results could help other science projects aiming to harness the power of large teams.

“I came to the UW to analyze a gold mine of social science datasets accumulated by COASST,” said social scientist and lead author Yurong He, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.  “Over a four year period, hundreds of participants responded to survey questions about why they were joining – or continuing – with the program. This represents an unparalleled opportunity.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program and Washington Sea Grant’s support for COASST. Other authors on the paper were Julia Parrish, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and director of COASST, Timothy Jones, a UW postdoctoral researcher in aquatic and fishery sciences, and Shawn Rowe, an associate professor at Oregon State University.

Read more at UW News »