The Citizen Science Geographic Information Systems (GIS) team at UCF spent long days trekking through shoreline mud and sweating in coastal heat this past summer — and they couldn’t have been happier about it.

The return to fieldwork follows a pandemic pause on critical shoreline mapping, which the team attempted to continue with limited success through remote observations. Beginning in June 2021, Associate Professor of Sociology Timothy Hawthorne led his team back into the field. They started in Hopkins, a village on the coast of Belize in Central America, and later in the summer work continued on another project in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was the common refrain for our work this summer: ‘How lucky we are to be with each other and conducting research in an environment that isn’t a virtual acclimation? ’ ” says Hawthorne, who joined UCF’s GIS Research Cluster Laboratory in 2015.

The work, which received renewed funding in 2021 from the U.S. National Science Foundation, focuses on mapping areas of the coast vulnerable to flooding using GIS and drones. The project emphasized hands-on training and teaching participants how to apply the technology and techniques. UCF students, community partners and K-12 teachers involved with the Citizen Science GIS NSF-funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) based at UCF joined the team in Belize. Hawthorne completed mapping with four partnering citizen scientists as well.

July took the team to the coast of the Pacific Northwest to advance a collaborative project with Smithsonian MarineGEO. The project, funded by a separate NSF grant, involves mapping of seagrass (also known as eelgrass) meadows with drones, which is expected to provide key insights into the health of marine life habitats.

Joining Hawthorne and postdoctoral research scholar Bo Yang on the trip to Washington was UCF student Tyler Copeland ’19 and local science teacher Andy Bula. Copeland, a second-year sociology student who earned a bachelor’s in environmental studies at UCF, served as the undergraduate lead in the eelgrass mapping project.

“It has been rejuvenating participating in field work after a year plus of wondering whether or not we’d be able to do so,” Copeland says. “The energy of working with each other in person compared to doing things virtually is so different. I appreciate being together in person more now than I ever thought possible.”

This is the first time that Bula, who teaches at Titusville’s Astronaut High School, participated in fieldwork through UCF’s RET program.

“This summer was the first full immersion fieldwork I’ve been able to participate in since 2019,” Bula says. “It’s important to me as a teacher to have this experience because my desire is to bring the skills I’ve gained back to the classroom to share with students.”

UCF is home to a NSF-funded Research for Undergraduate Experience (REU) and Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program  focused on GIS. The university also offers a GIS graduate certificate.