Students put their research skills to work for an organization that trains schoolchildren
By Kathleen J. Sullivan
This year, Jennifer pan, Assistant Professor in Communication, turned her undergraduate class into Communication research methods sort of a “pop-up” social science research firm working for a non-profit organization that offers one-to-one lessons to middle school children.
Instead of posing hypothetical problems for the students to solve, Pan invited the students to consider real-world problems by designing small-scale research studies for the organization, known as the Dream Catcher.
“Doing research in a real setting, where you encounter challenges and obstacles, reinforces learning,” she said.
Palo Alto-based DreamCatchers pairs low-income kids with personal guardians for the school year. As part of the program, children receive personalized support from their tutors – Stanford students and local high schoolers who serve as role models and academic cheerleaders – in lively after-school classes.
Mark Ibanez, 18, one of 60 Stanford students enrolled in the course, said it was “really amazing” to apply the skills he was learning to the real needs of an organization.
“Knowing that we are learning practical and essential research techniques in the hope of having an impact on how DreamCatchers conducts its tutoring programs in the future is worth it,” said Ibanez.
Ashley Westhem, ’17, who is pursuing a Masters in Communication, said it was rewarding working for DreamCatchers while learning key research methods.
“It was rewarding and motivating to know that our projects are not just for a note but can have tangible results on an organization,” she said. “My team and I want to give back because we feel so grateful to be at Stanford. This class allows us to do just that.
Olivia Popp, who took the course in her freshman year at Stanford, said the course got her thinking about how best to design her research projects to produce tangible results that could be implemented at the future.
“Plus, it seems like a good exhibition to see how researchers and organizations can ultimately work in tandem to effect change in the world around us,” Popp said.
Communication research methods was one of more than 160 Cardinal Course offered this year. Cardinal courses, which integrate rigorous coursework with real-world service experience, are a singular feature of an undergraduate education at Stanford.
Learning by doing
At the start of the course, Pan introduced the students to their “client” – Miguel Fittoria, program director at DreamCatchers – who solicited their expertise to understand what was already working, as well as how the organization could improve their program for the better. serve the children. .
“Like many nonprofits, DreamCatchers had collected data about its program and its impact, but needed help analyzing it,” Pan said. “This is where we came in.
Pan’s students were excited about their role as young social scientists from the start.
“When I looked at their homework, I saw that the students were not only thinking about the challenges the organization was facing and what was important for DreamCatchers to understand, but they were also applying what they were learning in class, ”said Pan.
During the first lab, students formulated research questions, generated testable hypotheses, and provided conceptual and operational definitions of their hypotheses.
“Imagine you could do everything from a lab experiment with DreamCatchers students, to a survey of a student or tutor, to obtaining data on students in the Palo Alto Unified School District. or any other ethical and feasible study you can imagine, ”Pan told his students. “Although your research will be limited once you see the data available from DreamCatchers, for the final project you will be asked to design an ideal study to answer your research questions. “
Address research questions
The students, organized in 13 teams, pursued various research questions.
After learning that children enrolled in the DreamCatchers program often did not know How? ‘Or’ What To be successful in school, Popp and her team decided to investigate whether there was a link between students’ enthusiasm for education and good grades.
“We thought it might be interesting to explore whether encouraging students to be more enthusiastic about education might spur something in them to talk more in class and become more proactive in their own learning.” , Popp said.
Ibanez and his team designed a study to test the hypothesis that the lower the employment status of parents, the more influence DreamCatchers have on students’ academic performance.
“By answering this question, we hope that DreamCatchers will be better equipped to understand its impact on students of different family structures, as well as the needs of these students, and to visualize the gaps in academic disparity between the different employment statuses of the parents that DreamCatchers is or is not closing, ”Ibanez said.
After hearing that DreamCatchers couldn’t meet demand from middle school students who wanted to participate in the program, Westhem and his team decided to conduct research that would help the organization serve more children.
“If we can prove that there are other metrics to use in judging future student success aside from grades, grade points, and test scores, DreamCatchers can ‘graduate’ students from their program earlier. and more frequently, and make room for students who need the program more, ”Westhem said.
At the end of the course, the teams summarized their work in scientific posters. In addition to the traditional elements of a poster – summary, introduction, methods and data, results and discussion – the students described how they would design a future survey or experiment to better answer their research questions.
“We presented the posters to DreamCatchers,” said Pan. “The idea is that next year, DreamCatchers would implement some of the research plans.”