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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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Introduce Julia’s story about learning about volunteer recruitment.

When we started COASST, the first thing that I did was go to a local Audubon chapter on the outer coast of Washington, and interestingly enough they turned out to be exactly the wrong people to be COASSTers. The people who are serious birders in Audubon want to see the next new thing, they don’t want to see the same old thing, and in COASST, you tend to see the same old thing. It’s that pattern of sameness that gives us the information that we need to figure out what’s going on with populations. … And so that was a really interesting insight for me, that … there are all sorts of different people, and they like to do different kinds of things, just all centered on birds. So that made me think a lot about who makes a good COASSTer.

In the town we were working in, Ocean Shores, there’s a small nature center called the Ocean Shores Interpretive Center. It’s run by a set of locals, and they’re wonderful. … we ended up calling them up and seeing whether they would help us … find people, because they were – and still are – a kind of magnet in town. And they were overjoyed, and said of course they would do that, and so they helped us recruit the initial folks. In fact, that general strategy of finding the place in a community that’s likely to be a gathering place for people that you think might be your participants, and also if possible finding the person, or the people in town that are the social networkers for things science-y or environmental, or ecological, that works really well. … And aside from a few participants who have passed away, I think we have 100% retention rate in that town.

But we expanded really slowly, which is a really good thing. If we had expanded fast, we wouldn’t have been able to do it, just because there were hiccups and glitches that we had to solve, like any program I think. So that was the lesson that we learned along the way, to try and figure out the community dynamics of the place.

Julia is also interested in the ecological dynamics, and she originally set out to recruit volunteers to walk strategically chosen beaches with different characteristics: flat or steep, rocky or sandy, and so forth. Here’s what happened:

I thought to myself, “ok, we’re going to do this scientifically, we’re going to sub-sample all of these different kinds of substrate types, and as we move into various communities in various places it’s really important that we tell people to go to these specific beaches because if there’s 35% sand in your general community then I want to make sure that 35% of the COASST beaches are sand and…,” you know, on and on and on. Ok, well that doesn’t work at all. You can achieve those kinds of things regionally, because you have lots and lots and lots of people. But when you tell somebody, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t go walk on the beach that you walk on every day for our program, you have to get in your car and you have to drive 8 miles to this other place, and that’s where you have to survey because that’s the scientific thing.” I can tell you what they’ll do – they won’t participate in your program.

Citizen science, I have come to learn, is not just about people doing science, it’s about people doing science connected to a place or a thing that they love. And if you break that connection, they become the kid in school again. So sometimes they might do it, but often they won’t, unless they have to. And people don’t have to do citizen science. So you have to – my experience has been that you have to find that connection, and then you have to celebrate it. And then people will stay with you for a very long time.

Citizen science, volunteer monitoring, participatory action research... this site supports organizers of all initiatives where public participants are involved in scientific research.

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