The Infusion of Community-Based Research into Undergraduate Research Course

by Michele Ramirez. Ph.D. and Robert Shea. Ph.D.

The goal of this project was to incorporate community based research into a traditional undergraduate psychology and sociology research sequence. Three community based research projects were developed and conducted in the sociology and psychology research courses at Pine Manor College. The projects were a collaboration between the faculty and students of Pine Manor College and three different agencies: Germaine Lawrence School, Healthcare Dimensions Hospice and the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly. Germaine Lawrence School is a residential treatment program for adolescent girls with emotional and behavioral problems. They were interested in piloting a follow-up study to assess how successful the girls were once they left Germaine Lawrence. Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly has an 1800 person waiting list for housing. They had information on the people on the list but wanted to find out why people were withdrawing from the list. Healthcare Dimensions Hospice was interested in finding out what factors influence end of life planning.

What is Community Based Research?

"Community Based Research (CBR) is research conducted by, for, or with participation of community members (LOKA Institute)." The community generates the research question and is an active participant at every step of the research process. CBR differs quite dramatically from traditional research in that it is done with the community not to the community and the goal of the research is to produce information that will help the agency better serve its clientele (Strand, 2000). The community is the expert when it comes to understanding the problem and the researcher is there to supply technical support.

Ideally all partners in the research process should be seen as researchers just with different expertise. Although CBR is not new, not many colleges or universities have involved undergraduate as equal partners in CBR process. Students enrolled in a research methods course that offers a CBR focus are provided with a powerful service-learning opportunity to apply classroom instruction to real world problem solving. CBR benefits all members involved in the process. The students benefit from having a valuable research question and the agency benefits from having the expertise of the faculty and students as well as the human resources to carry out the project.

How We Got Started?

The college was interested in creating a Community Healthcare Outreach Program so we invited community agencies in to help us develop the program. These agencies indicated that there was a need to train students in applied research methods so we began looking for ways to support this need. The support came in the form of a grant from the Massachusetts Campus Compact (MACC) in the spring of 2001. MACC is an organization of college and university presidents whose goal is "to promote service as a critical component of higher education." It is affiliated with the national Campus Compact and provides over $500,000 a year in grants "to foster innovative community service, and service learning, and other civic engagement programs. (MACC)" Pine Manor College was awarded a Learn and Serve Grant to infuse Community Based Research into our existing research courses in Psychology and Sociology. Sociology has a one semester research course while Psychology has a two semester research sequence.

We began the process of identifying potential partners by inviting community agencies to a workshop on CBR. The purpose of the workshop was to familiarize ourselves and the community agencies with what CBR is and what issues we might face in this type of collaboration. The training was conducted by the LOKA Institute and Institute for Community Research. After the workshop we surveyed the agencies to see if they had a research question in mind and to determine if they wanted to participate in this type of joint venture.

We selected three projects based on the type of question (whether it would fit betterwith a one semester course or needed to be done over the course of an academic year) and the commitment and understanding of the agency to the process. Our partners at each of the agencies were: David Hirshberg, Executive Director of the Germaine Lawrence School, Ellen McGrory , Community Relations Coordinator of Healthcare Dimensions Hospice, and Roberta Rosenberg, Vice President of the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly.

We met periodically with our partners over the summer to iron out issues and to hone the research questions. Both Germaine Lawrence and the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE) had a specific question in mind and in the case of JCHE they had already collected the data. Healthcare Dimensions Hospice did not have a narrowly defined question but rather a few questions they were interested in investigating, like how to give hospice patients and their families a sense of hope or why more physicians don't refer their patients to hospice. So over the summer we discussed different ideas and some possible challenges we might face if we chose one question over another. Finally the agency decided that it would be most helpful to them to find out why people don't do more end of life planning. With those questions in hand we started the fall semester.

Institutional Support

Pine Manor College is a small liberal arts college for women in Chestnut Hill, MA. The college's mission is Inclusive Leadership and Social Responsibility. The college and the president in particular have made a concerted effort to reach out to the community. The college demonstrated significant support for CBR by matching the grant from MACC. Also our committee on Reappointment, Tenure, and Promotion changed the criteria for tenure and promotion to include CBR.

Since the college is situated just 5 miles outside of Boston, there are a number of different agencies and organizations with which to partner. One of the goals of both the college and the agencies is to develop sustainable partnerships. In trying to find partners for CBR it was particularly important that the partner understand that the students would be learning research methods as they did the research. It was important to assess the agency's expectations and the pedagogical needs of the students to see if there was a good match. We didn't want to promise more than we could deliver.

Project Chronology

At the beginning of the semester the community partners came into the two classes respectively. The partners gave a presentation about the agency and its mission and then discussed the research question. In the psychology course we gave the students an opportunity to work on their own project or a community based project and all of the students chose the community projects.

During the first semester the students developed a research proposal with the help of the agencies. We were in frequent contact with the agencies either by phone or by email. One thing we learned was that it would have been beneficial if the students had had more face to face interactions with their partners during the first semester. By the second semester the students did have more direct contact with the agencies and felt a sense of rapport. They conducted the research during the second semester and presented their findings at a conference the college hosted entitled "Putting CBR into Practice: Reports from the Field" at which we invited other community agencies. The students also prepared reports for the agencies and did a special presentation for their agency.

Next Steps and Outcomes

This summer we are recruiting new research projects for next year and will continue with some of our current partners. We are hoping to collect more data on the factors that influence end of life planning with the possibility of disseminating that data in a relevant publication that healthcare providers will read. We are also hoping to maintain and expand our relationships with our partners to include internships and service learning opportunities. One method that has worked in the Healthcare Outreach Program is to invite community partners in as guest lecturers.

Challenges and Opportunities

One of the biggest challenges was to cover the content of the research design course while integrating CBR into the course. By focusing on the process of research and discussing the other projects as examples of different research designs we were able to bring the material to life. One goal for the future is to have varying projects and a more extensive discussion of the difference between traditional research and CBR.

Another challenge was the added responsibility of coordinating with the agencies. Having a grant was helpful because we were able to work with the agencies over the summer and to give the agencies a small stipend for participating in the project; insuring that both parties were invested in the process.

One of the major benefits of including CBR in an undergraduate research class is the enthusiasm it generates and real world experience the students gain. The students take the projects more seriously and are more engaged because they are working with an outside agency. They learn to write and present to different audiences and they learned about the agency and the clientele they serve. The students felt like they were giving back to the community and that their research had significance. One student commented in her journal that although she didn't like research she did like CBR.

We found that the partnerships worked because they were built on existing college/community relationships. This allowed us to deepen these relationships and opened doors for expanded community service and service learning opportunities.

If you would like more information please email Michele Ramirez. Ph.D. or Robert Shea. Ph.D.

References and Resources

Strand, K. J. (2000). Community-based research as pedagogy. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 85-96.


Institute for Community Research