Research Summary

Place attachment and learning outcomes among tourists who volunteer for a U.S. National Park science volunteer program

A citizen science program in Denali may have positive place attachment and learning outcomes for tourists

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Environmental research organizations often run citizen science programs which bring non-expert volunteers into the scientific process to collect and analyze data. These programs help further scientific research and generate positive outcomes for volunteers, including learning and place attachment, which is defined as an appreciation for the intangible value of a certain location. Past research shows that place attachment and learning can both contribute to conservation behavior and advocacy in participants. One example is the Map of Life-Denali program at Denali National Park and Preserve (NP&P) in Alaska. The program invites visitors to record their wildlife observations in a mobile application, from which scientists assemble a scientific dataset. This study sought to answer the question: did the Map of Life-Denali program increase place attachment and knowledge in volunteers?

From June to September 2016, the Map of Life-Denali program recruited adult (18 years and older) volunteers via staff interactions and signage advertising the program at park entrances. The mobile application included pre- and post-visit surveys. Both surveys used true/false and multiple choice questions to test volunteers’ park knowledge, including “I do not know” as an option, so that volunteers would not guess and generate false positives. These ‘quiz’ questions were based on quizzes used in similar studies, and asked volunteers about wildlife safety, general wildlife knowledge, ecosystems, and wildlife interactions with climate change. Both surveys also measured place attachment through a word choice question that listed tangible, abstract, or negative words and phrases, and asked volunteers to choose words that described their feelings towards Denali NP&P. Only the pre-visit included demographic questions. Only the post-visit survey included another section that measured users’ application and park experience, and other metrics for knowledge and place attachment. This section on the post-survey included a series of statements with responses on a scale of “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree” and open-ended questions.

Over the course of the study, a total of 139 volunteers participated in the Map of Life-Denali program. Of the participants, 90% were tourists (visitors who did not live in the local area). The researchers decided that they did not have enough responses from local visitors to represent the perspectives of the local population, so they removed 11 local volunteers from the sample, for a final total of 128 volunteers. These volunteers ranged from 18 to 75 years or older, averaging 41-55 years old, but age had no discernible influence on the data. Of the volunteers, 80% were first-time visitors to Denali NP&P.

The pre-visit surveys showed low scores in place attachment, with volunteers choosing fewer abstract words to describe their feelings towards Denali NP&P. In the post-visit survey, volunteers chose about 6% more abstract words to describe their feelings. They most commonly chose “wilderness” and “being a part of nature” and rarely used negative words. The volunteers’ mean quiz score increased by about 26% in the post-visit survey, showing a general increase in knowledge. From the place attachment questions, most volunteers agreed that the program helped them feel connected to Denali NP&P (though only 68% said the program made them feel connected to nature) and almost all felt that the program enhanced their learning experience. However, volunteers’ place attachment was specific to Denali NP&P, less so nature in general. Research shows that visitors often perceive parks as separate from nature due to human influence, which might explain this trend.

The study has a serious limitation: it contains no control group of Denali NP&P visitors who did not participate in the program, so there is no baseline to which to compare this data. This makes it very difficult to tell how much the program is responsible for these positive outcomes, as opposed to the mere experience of visiting Denali NP&P. In addition, the sample size was too small to examine demographic differences among volunteers, or outcomes for local visitors.

The data suggested that volunteers in the Map of Life-Denali program had a significant increase in learning and place attachment after their visits – a promising sign for similar citizen science programs at other parks. The study suggests that a short-term citizen science program using a mobile application can provide a unique opportunity to engage tourists in volunteer work, who would not normally be recruited for citizen science programs.

The Bottom Line

Citizen science programs bring non-expert volunteers into the scientific process to collect and analyze data. This study examined the Map of Life-Denali program at Denali National Park and Preserve (NP&P) in Alaska. The program invited visitors to record their wildlife observations in a mobile application and included pre- and post-visit surveys to assess place attachment and knowledge, which can lead to conservation behavior and advocacy. The survey data showed a significant increase in place attachment (to Denali NP&P specifically) and knowledge between surveys. However, the study contains no control group of Denali NP&P visitors who did not participate in the program, so there is no baseline to which to compare these data. The study suggests that short-term citizen science programs may be beneficial for tourists, who are not frequently recruited for citizen science programs.