Many faculty members want their students to be more engaged in their communities, but have few ideas about how to successfully facilitate this engagement. At the same time, faculty also want to expose students to the realities of research to help them prepare for graduate school, learn how to solve real-world problems, and/or competently evaluate research they may come across in their careers. Co-curricular, community-based research provides an avenue through which to achieve both of these goals.
Based on my experiences as a faculty advisor to students undertaking community-based research, I have developed four keys to success in engaging undergraduates in this type of research. These four keys stem from my experiences in the past year as a faculty advisor for a unique program at Weber State University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning called the Community Engaged Leaders Community Research Team. Each academic year, we select a small group of students to design and implement research projects requested by community partners. Under the mentorship of myself and one other faculty member, the four to six students who comprise the Community Research Team work with and for community partners to address the needs of the community through research. We have conducted a variety of projects, including surveying city residents about their perceptions of local government departments and services; surveying current, former, and potential students to assess how the university’s continuing education department can better meet the needs of the community; analyzing whether a charter academy’s practices align with their mission and goals; and reviewing the literature on the relationship between K9 units and crime rates. Our program is building momentum and the keys I describe below reflect lessons from both the successes and failures of the program as we continue to develop and grow.
The first and most important key to success is that students, not faculty advisors, must own their projects. They are working with the community partner to do research for that partner. When students do not own their projects, faculty members may end up conducting most of the research themselves. This places inordinate demands on faculty time and, more importantly, fails to give the students opportunities to meaningfully engage with the community and develop their research skills. In my experience, student ownership of projects increases dramatically when students conduct meetings with their community partners very early in the process. Faculty advisors can facilitate and attend these initial meetings, but the students should lead the meetings. By working with community partners to establish expectations for final products, timelines, and methods of communication, students build rapport with their community partners and they begin to own their role as the primary researchers.
The second key to success requires faculty advisors to carefully select students who are self-motivated, organized, and passionate about solving community problems. Prior research experience is a bonus, but is by no means an absolute requirement because students work as a team. Retreats and weekly team meetings build a sense of group cohesion that allows students who have had little experience with prior research learn from their teammates in order to successfully complete their projects.
Third, while selecting the right team of students is important, choosing appropriate research projects will increase students’ chances of success. In our program, we send out a call for proposals to all community partners in the spring semester. The call asks partners about their research needs and how conducting the research will help them advance their mission. The faculty advisors then review all proposals and select small-scale projects that can either be finished in an academic year or can be broken into pieces that can be finished within the year. For instance, we have found that large-scale surveys of entire cities may involve too many pieces, but more localized surveys of an organization’s target population provide excellent opportunities to teach students about sampling, survey design, data collection, and data analysis.
The final key to success relates to implementing the projects. First and foremost, students must commit a specified amount of time per week to their projects. I have found that students do not realize how much time research actually takes. Without a commitment of at least seven hours per week, they fail to put in the time required to complete high quality projects. Our Community Engaged Leaders program emphasizes that these students are leaders on their projects and in the campus community; as such, we do not require them to complete the entire research project on their own. Instead, we train them on how to recruit volunteers to help at every stage of the research. This serves the purpose of building their leadership skills, as well as engaging more students across campus in community-based research.
Co-curricular community-based research can have its limitations: faculty advisors must be willing to let students experience the minor and sometimes major setbacks involved with any research project, while also ensuring that students meet their obligations to community partners. This may mean that faculty advisors end up taking on the bulk of a research project if their students fail to perform. Engaging the four keys to success will help minimize these potential problems and maximize the benefits for both faculty and students. Faculty will find that guiding undergraduate research can create networks with a wide variety of people and resources across campuses and communities, and provide a sense of purpose as we share our passion for solving complex problems through research with our students. For students, the benefits include opportunities to present and possibly publish their research, and, more importantly, increased civic engagement now and in the future. For these reasons I believe that, despite the potential pitfalls, engaging our undergraduates in co-curricular community-based research is an essential part of developing well-rounded citizens who know how to solve complex community problems.