Critical Thinking and People-Place Relationships in Citizen Science

April 15th, 2020 - February 28th, 2022 | PROJECT

This pilot and feasibility project will explore whether participation in informal science initiatives like citizen science, which is a form of Public Participation in Scientific Research, can foster or enhance participant attachment to the natural places participants investigate via these programs. The project also examines if participant attachment to place influences the development or application of critical thinking skills among adult learners. Critical thinking skills and the factors that enhance critical thinking skills are important areas of inquiry within the informal STEM learning community. Existing scholarship suggests that three components may be linked: (1) feelings of connection to specific places, (2) intentional exploration and investigation of those places (in this case via citizen science), and (3) understanding of complex socio-ecological systems, which is predicated on critical thinking skills ability. However, the degree to which these aspects are related to each other, the scale at which they occur (local to global), and the specific dimensions of place connection or informal science experiences implicated is not known. Working with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science program, this project advances collaboration among experts from disparate fields to examine if and how citizen science contributes to increases in connection to place and higher-order critical thinking skills among participants and the potential links between those hypothesized outcomes. The ultimate goal of the project is to inform design of Public Participation in Scientific Research programming that optimizes participant learning, interest, and retention; produces societal outcomes like critical thinking in support of science literacy; and creates high quality data of the scale and grain needed to address questions and issues across the basic-applied science continuum.

This research focuses on the degree to which Public Participation in Scientific Research, specifically citizen science, may foster the presence or intensity of place attachment felt by participants for the sites and settings investigated through these programs and to what extent place attachment may be linked to higher order critical thinking skills among adult learners. A three-pronged mixed-methods research strategy will include: (1) a re-analysis of existing survey and interview data for markers of three-dimensional (personal, social, natural) place attachment as well as critical thinking skills and dispositions; (2) an assessment survey to test for the presence and intensity of place attachment and critical thinking skills; and (3) in-depth interviews to better understand the qualitative nature and development of place attachment and critical thinking skills in a citizen science context. The survey and interview sample will be drawn from participants in the COASST citizen science program and will be stratified into four groups as a function of time engaged in the program, including new, novice, and long-term participants. An independent external advisory board and a committee of visitors comprised of experts in informal science, education, and sense of place will critique and help guide this work. Results are expected to reveal important factors that impact the learning and behavioral outcomes of informal STEM initiatives by probing questions about the essential experiences, exposures, and COASST program components that facilitate deeper critical thinking skills and place attachment. Synthesizing theoretical frameworks from the fields of geography, science education, and educational psychology while testing a unique methodological approach to best measure critical thinking skills and place attachment in an informal citizen science setting will enhance knowledge-building among research and practitioner communities.

In a globalized and increasingly technologically complex world, the ability of citizens to interrogate and interpret scientific evidence, views, and values is critical. That is, scientific literacy is essential for the maintenance of robust and healthy economic, social, and environmental systems in the twenty-first century. Informal science learning fills an important gap in national educational efforts to cultivate a scientifically literate populace as research suggests that formal science training is not always capable of fostering the type of higher order critical thinking skills that undergird such scientific competency. This project aims to strengthen infrastructure and build capacity among informal science practitioners by clarifying whether specific aspects and forms of Public Participation in Scientific Research, especially those relating to people-place connections, are implicated in the development and/or application of critical thinking skills in STEM settings. This effort may expand opportunities to strengthen informal science learning program outcomes, including the cultivation of numerous 21st century skills like information literacy and social skills like conflict management. Through a greater understanding of the individual components that shape informal learning experiences and outcomes, this project also has the potential to support the broadening of participation in STEM fields by providing the groundwork for further research on whether or not underrepresented or traditionally marginalized groups of people experience and/or relate differently to both the "places" most common in citizen science and the practice of informal science programming itself.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - Sticking with Citizen Science: People-Place Bonds that Glue Learning
Shapeshifting attachment: Exploring multi-dimensional people–place bonds in place-based citizen science
How can Place Attachment Improve Scientific Literacy?

Team Members

Julia Parrish, Principal Investigator, University of Washington
Benjamin Haywood, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2031884
Funding Amount: $292,304


Audience: General Public | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Ecology | forestry | agriculture | Geoscience and geography | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Citizen Science Programs | Public Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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