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A mixed-methods study - What attracts and retains COASST participants (2017-2019)


As of 2019, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program had recruited ∼4500 west coast residents who voluntarily participated in authentic environmental science research by monitoring 400+ beaches on a monthly basis.

Almost half of participants withdraw within a year. Only a small amount of participants keep being involved for years. COASST team wants to know why.

COASST hired me as a social science postdoc researcher to gain a systematic and in-depth understanding of their participants. I lead a participant research program and closely work with the program director, program manager, participant coordinator, data scientist, and collaborators from different organizations.  

Methods and Analysis

  • Optimized, organized, and analyzed large human subject datasets (n = 1000+ samples) derived from participant survey data collection efforts from 2012 – 2017

  • Informally interviewed with all COASST program managers and scientists and 10+ COASST participants

  • Observed two COASST in-person trainings and one participant party

  • Used mixed-methods approach to analyze longitudinal survey data

  • Developed and applied qualitative codes of different types of motivation

  • Used chi-square tests to compare new and seasoned participants’ motivation


Demographic information:

  • Female dominant gender (>60%)

  • Average age (>50 years old)

  • The average length of participation for seasoned participants was 5 years

Motivation for new and seasoned participants:

  • Birds, and being outdoors on the beach – stay strong

  • Motivation increases in

    • contributing to science

    • monitoring and observing

    • importance of COASST program results/data

  • Identities as part of motivation shift towards science, and social identity – the interactive data collector

Example figure of motivation results:

dynamic patterns of motivation for new and seasoned participants



For the first time, COASST program got measurable results that show not only what attract and retain participants, but also how their motivation change as the function of engagement.

Provided guidance for keeping participants motivated and engaged in COASST

  • Be aware that participants are not only interested in the biodiversity (birds), but also strongly attached to place (beach)

  • Pay attention to communicate the scientific results with participants

  • Support both altruistic (helping science) and self-interest (learning and enjoyment) needs of participants

  • Combine rigorous science experience with meaningful social interaction

The full results of this study are published in a top-tier interdisciplinary journal:

He, Y., J. K. Parrish, S. Rowe, & T. Jones. (2019). Evolving interest and sense of self in an environmental citizen science program. Ecology and Society 24(2):33. [Journal h5-index: 59]

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