Learning research by doing research

On a gray February afternoon, 50 students sat in a Kassar House classroom as Danielle Cerny, Rhode Island’s Chief Performance Officer at the Rhode Island Governor’s Innovation League, presented them with a problem her team was contending with how to increase engagement with the state’s Point program, which connects people to resources and services related to eldercare.

When she finished, students broke into groups of three to five, discussed the problems and brainstormed ways of using social science research to solve them, then shared their ideas out loud. One group suggested gathering data at senior centers, places of worship, and a local grocery store that offers a senior-discount day. 

“Great idea,” said Jayanti Owens, who is Mary Tefft and John Hazen White, Sr. Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs and Sociology and the instructor of the course, “but be aware your grocery store data might be skewed, gender-wise.” Taking her point, the students resumed their huddle to refine their list of ideas for research locations.

The course, Methods of Social Research, was conceived by Owens three years ago and is designed to teach concentrators in sociology and in business, entrepreneurship, and organizations (BEO) how to carry out social science research. After the first year, she says she realized students are “thirsty to learn research methods for a reason that is bigger than just the methods themselves.”

To give the course real-world applicability, Owens looked beyond the classroom and toward the community. What if she got local organizations to present her students with an actual problem they need to address, and the students honed that topic into a specific manageable, research question, suggested the research method best suited to answer it, and then carried out the research? Owens proposed the idea to seven local organizations she admires—the Office of Innovation, Generation Citizen and Providence ¡CityArts!, for example—and all seven accepted.

The coronavirus pandemic may have emptied the campus, but Owens says the engaged scholarship/community partnership work of the class is adapting and moving forward. This year, in addition to the Governor’s Office, teams are working with the director of Medicaid for the State of Rhode Island, Via Transport (a company that provides pupil transport—think school busses—among other transportation services), and Lifespan Mental Health and Psychiatry. Prior years’ student projects include partnership work with the Office of Innovation for the City of Providence and two non-profit organizations, Generation Citizen and ¡Providence City Arts!.

It’s a win for the organizations, Owens says, and a win for the students.

BEO concentrator Vanessa Garcia ’20.5 appreciates the course’s requirement that research affects real institutions. “Too often, being in class positions us as naive college students who are ‘playing pretend’ when it comes to social impact or community engagement. In this class, I've felt invigorated and dedicated to carefully crafting my research proposals, looking into statistics, and considering methodology ethics for my partnership, the RI Department of Health and Human Services, with the knowledge that my research will actually have implications for the organization's next decisions.” 

Lauren Brown ’22, another BEO major, loves the course’s hands-on engagement with issues “outside of the College Hill bubble,” as well as its highly interactive nature in the classroom. “Because we cover the most important questions and methods to use when performing social research,” she says, “I can apply everything that I learn in the classroom to the research proposals I create. The applicability of this course makes it a critical experience in my Brown education.”

The course, which also attracts public policy and biology concentrators, among others, is intensely collaborative. Teams work with partners in the community, but also with and for each other. Creating a record of every presentation is crowdsourced, for example, with each student responsible for transcribing a different section. All the sections are combined, and the result is a complete online transcript everyone can refer back to.

Owens adds that it teaches students that social research is “deeply iterative:” First, all students write a short research proposal for each presentation. Next, after ranking the four problems they’d most like to work on and being matched with a community partner, they write a long proposal. Each partner then reads all 12 proposals and selects three, and students form teams up to work on them. 

There’s a more straightforward way Owens means iterative, too. “It’s simply the case that when you do research, you need to refine your original question,” she says. “You need to go back to what you thought was a really clear research question and make it even narrower. And despite having an outline for your sampling strategy, you might quickly realize, ‘That's not going to be feasible. I need to revise that to make it more realistic given the constraints of the research timeline.’”

The first year she included community partners in the course, Owens worked hard to make sure that their needs aligned with what she believed her students could contribute. No more, she says. “I don't need to pre-orchestrate anything. My students are so resourceful and insightful, they are perfectly capable of identifying the partners’ needs and figuring out how to address them.”