By: Michelle Schmidt, Ph.D., Moravian College
More and more, teaching and learning is moving away from traditional methods and focusing instead on opportunities for students to engage outside of the classroom, work collaboratively, and be more engaged in the local community. Community-based learning is one pedagogy that allows students to use their research skills while serving the community (Ingman, 2016). Community-based research allows students and community partners to collaboratively identify a research question, operationalize the variables, explore a research design and data collection approaches, analyze data, and disseminate the results (Mello-Goldner, 2019).
The benefits of students engaging in community-based research are underscored by the findings of the Council on Undergraduate Research, which reports that the benefits of undergraduate research include greater critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual independence, as well as a deeper understanding of research methodology.
Given my interests in developmental psychology, undergraduate research, nonprofit organizations, and student-community engagement, I decided to try a community-based research project in my upper level developmental psychology seminar. Having used service-learning in my courses for 20 years, this seemed like a new and exciting way to engage students with the local community.
The theme of my seminar was stress and families. In the course, we typically spend a lot of time reading about at-risk youth and relevant social policy. Before I began teaching a recent iteration of this course, I became aware of a local YMCA’s interest in evaluating their summer campers’ experiences. The camp had been run for decades, but they never evaluated to determine if the camps were doing what they intended to do. It seemed to me that my seminar was relevant to summer camp for at-risk youth, and I might have a perfect match for helping the Y design a study of summer camp effectiveness. And so began the community partnership between my seminar students and a local nonprofit organization.
Over the course of the semester, 4 full-time YMCA staff partnered with the class, visiting and engaging with the class several times. Everyone started at the same place: Something about summer camp needed to be evaluated to determine if the campers were having a beneficial summer experience. Beyond that, everything had to be figured out. The Y staff described summer camp to the class, and the class described research on camp effectiveness to the Y staff. With time and effort, the students proposed what had perhaps been obvious all along, studying whether the local Y’s summer camp successfully advanced the 3 primary goals of camp: Achievement, Belonging, and Relationship Building.
The students organized themselves into the three focus areas and launched their efforts to research these areas in relation to summer camp type experiences, paying attention to research methodologies along the way. With a shared Google spreadsheet, students worked individually, within their groups, and with the larger class to keep a log of their resources and progress. We devoted time in class each week for students to share their “leads” with the rest of the class. The end goal was a formal presentation of the proposed study with a how-to guide for the Y staff with each student having contributed to the design of that study but also writing an individual research paper on their own piece of the pie.
It worked! After 14 weeks, the class delivered a well-designed study that was grounded in the literature that the YMCA staff carried out a month after the class ended. Students reported numerous benefits of the community-based research partnership that can be organized around 4 themes:
- Real Work: Students enjoyed working in a consulting type capacity for the nonprofit.
- Applied Work: Students saw the benefits of communicating their knowledge and using their skills for something bigger than a grade.
- Nonprofits: Students gained a better understanding and appreciation for the work of nonprofits.
- Rigorous but Worth It: Students reported that the course was rigorous and time consuming but very worthwhile.
The benefits for student learning and engagement were fabulous, but, as always, the course was not without its challenges:
- The community-based research was a larger assignment than the traditional research paper that students would have completed for the course, so it was time consuming and more challenging for students from a “thinking” perspective.
- For the instructor, there was more work required to coordinate the students and the community partner and to oversee the progress of the research.
- Also for the instructor, there was a great deal of planning that had to be done before the course started—establishing the nonprofit that needed this type of work done, laying out a plan for the nonprofit before the exact plan could be known, and coordinating schedules and planning meetings throughout the semester.
But as the instructor, my takeaway was the same as my students: Rigorous, but worth it!
For those wishing to establish a community-based research project, I offer the following tips:
- Identify local nonprofits whose goals match your teaching areas
- Make connections and learn the needs of a local nonprofit or two
- Think about your courses and how the students could assist the nonprofits with their research needs (I have also used a model in which students did service learning for the organization while they were doing research with the organization)
- Be sure you have people at the nonprofit who are willing to work with you and your students throughout the semester
- Be willing to not know everything at the start of the semester; much of community-based research projects with students get figured out as you go along!
Council on Undergraduate Research (2020). Mission. https://www.cur.org/who/organization/mission/
Ingman B. C. (2016). The student experience of community-based research: An autoethnography.
Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 20, 62–89. https://openjournals.libs.uga.edu/jheoe/article/view/1293
Mello-Goldner, D. (2019). Community-based research as an alternative to traditional research
courses as a method promoting undergraduate publication. Frontiers in Psychology, 10,
10-12. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01012 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01012/full
Michelle Schmidt is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA., where she has been on the faculty since 2000. Her teaching focuses on developmental psychology courses, research methods, and statistics. She is especially interested in research on and the practice of service learning and community-based research. Her scholarship focuses on attachment, friendship, and victimization.