The Effects of Condemned/Restored Homes on Surrounding Property Values: A Student/Faculty Collaborative Research and Service Learning Experience
In this semester-long public (or urban) economics classroom project, students and faculty collaborate on a study of the effects of condemned/restored homes in their college town on surrounding property values, informing the decision-making of the city as well as area nonprofits that acquire and restore such homes. This project further helps the non-profit with the statistics necessary to support its case for grant funds for its projects. Participants proceed together through all steps of the research process, prepare research proposals on their own, and, in small groups, write and deliver a research paper and presentation to an audience of class members and interested parties. While this example describes an experience in a small, upper-level elective course, it includes suggestions for modifications of design and learning goals for other learning levels and environments.
This example comes from an elective public or urban economics course for which principles of microeconomics and principles of macroeconomics are prerequisites. A general description of the course as a whole and its overall economics learning objectives are copied from the course syllabus here: Undergraduate Research/Service Learning Public Economics Course Description (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09).
Through the project itself, by experiencing all stages of the research process, students are exposed to skills satisfying each of Hansen's proficiencies.
Specifically, students will:
- Be able to state the value to various stakeholders of an analysis of the effects of condemned homes on neighborhoods,
- From a research topic, produce a clearly-stated critical question and a corresponding hypothesis,
- Critically evaluate literature on the topic and/or question, including, if relevant, the most recent working papers produced in previous semesters of the course
- Develop and use a means by which to systematically test the hypothesis. (This project requires collecting and compiling publically available map and spreadsheet data, and basic data entry, manipulation, and display in Excel), and
- Address the results in the context of the broader topic and present the results in written and oral form.
Through interactions with project stakeholders and opportunities for reflection, students
- learn about community needs and opportunities,
- observe different leadership styles, and
- explore career opportunities.
Context for Use
While the project can be modified for a variety of classroom environments and learning goals (see Teaching Tips, below), this particular version is carried out at a small private liberal arts institution that lacks a service learning center to assist the instructor in coordinating the opportunity. From their principles, students in this class have experience with Excel and can interpret basic descriptive statistics. The course is offered as a 3 credit hour seminar meeting one day a week (to better facilitate discussion, travel, and collaboration). In the semester preceding the course, the instructor herself consults with the off-campus entities being served (here, the City of Lynchburg, Virginia and a local nonprofit that restores condemned homes and places families in them) to ensure the project constitutes true service by meeting a genuine need. Class size is restricted to 10 students to allow for trips to organizations and neighborhoods being served (about 2 trips total), easily monitored small-group activity, and productive class discussion and reflection.
Classroom needs include a computer with internet connection and a projector. If students are going to spend part of class time working on their projects in small groups (which is advised, so mentoring is more efficient and collaboration better observed), a small computer lab is helpful on occasion. Use of an online course management system is useful for sharing data, drafts, references and resources, and for providing forums for out-of-class discussions and shared reflections about the project. A room of sufficient size is necessary for final presentations.
This project requires time series data on property values of condemned/restored homes and surrounding residences. A list of condemned/restored properties can be obtained from the city and/or non-profit. Assessment and sales records on all properties are publically available, but the ease in collecting them depends on the technology and resources available at the city. This research question is most easily investigated in locales where property records and maps can be found online and/or can be requested from the city in an electronic form at low- to no cost. See the Teaching Tips section below for recommendations for how to adapt the project for studies in towns where records are less easy to come by.
About 2 class periods are devoted to field trips that allow students to meet and discuss their project with members of the agencies they serve and to visit neighborhoods they will be studying. Other project-related course time is devoted to discussing literature on the topic and collaborating with the students on design and implementation of the methodology. Every student prepares her own mid-term research proposal to ensure the instructor of each student's individual understanding of the project, but final papers are completed in groups of 2-4, with each group applying a class-determined methodology to a subset of the properties being examined. With a common methodology, students have three lines of support: they have their paper-writing partner, the members of other groups who are applying the same methodology and acquiring their data from the same source, and the faculty member.
Description and Teaching Materials
Careful attention is given at the beginning of the semester to making sure students understand how collaborative research and service learning experiences vary from other classroom experiences. An example of text read and discussed on the first day of class is here: Student Handout on Service Learning (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09). Students begin weekly reflections immediately. For more information on designing these, see the Starting Point service learning module.
The activities below are described in the order in which they appear in the semester. The portion of course time/semester time allocated to each can vary according to the learning goals, the educational environment, and the desired weight of the undergraduate research experience in determining the overall course grade. (See the Teaching Tips section below for more on modifying this experience for different teaching and learning environments.) For students to truly invest in the process of undergraduate research, it is best if the experience is spread throughout the semester rather than left for the end. The time allotments below are recommendations for the experience as it is described in the Context section above.
Students are first familiarized with the organizations and community they are serving. This can be accomplished by a combination of field trips, meetings with relevant community leaders, literature, and reviews of relevant statistics comparing the neighborhoods they are examining to the city, state, and nation. Most relevant comparative data can be found online at the U.S. Census . Suggested time: Half of each seminar period for first quarter of the semester, with the exception of one whole seminar period for travel.
Next, students read and discuss relevant research on the effects of condemned/restored homes. The literature chosen should not only offer content relevant to the project but serve as clear examples of the way economists write about research. The quantity and sophistication of the literature should be chosen with consideration to the learning environment and expectations. Attachment 3 is a list of works to consider. If students in previous semesters have worked on this project, it is good to include their work at this state so current students understand what they are building upon. Beyond these readings, students report feeling more connected to the material if they have an opportunity to read some basic history of economic development in the region. This work can begin early in the semester, and should be completed by midterm, when student research proposals are due. Suggested time: This activity can be ongoing, with enough read by midterm to prepare a short literature review for include in the midterm research proposal.
Hansen and Salemi (1998) stress the use of factual, interpretative, and evaluative questions in developing class discussions. This instructor requires students to prepare for literature review class time by generating these questions themselves. A student handout on Hansen and Salemi's questions is here: Interpretative and Evaluative Questions Handout (Microsoft Word 25kB Jul14 10). It is useful to introduce early chapters of Greenlaw's Doing Economics at this stage, offering his appendices on components of a research proposal and on research paper grading rubrics to both focus them on the discussion of the readings at hand and to develop expectations for their own later assignments.
Class discussion is then given to the project's research question and relevance, to the formulation of the hypothesis, and to the establishment of the methodology. Whether the methodology is developed in advance and presented by the instructor for student feedback or refinement or developed in collaboration with the students depends on the nature of the learning environment, students (number and educational background), and learning objectives. Suggested time: This usually begins and develops as students are reviewing and discussing literature. While individual research proposals might offer methodological refinements useful to the entire class, the methodology for the most part should be developed and understood in time for it to be communicated in the midterm research proposal.
To ensure that every individual student understands the project, each prepares her own midterm research proposal using the guidelines provided by Greenlaw (see above). The remainder of time spent on the project is time spent implementing the methodology and writing and delivering the research report. One recommendation is for students to conduct research and write in groups of 2-4, with each group of students applying a class-determined methodology to a subset of the properties being examined. (An aggregated analysis might be better for a follow-up honors or independent study project.) With a common methodology, students have three lines of support: they have their paper-writing partner(s), the members of other groups who are applying the same methodology and acquiring their data from the same source, and the faculty member. Tips for facilitating cooperative learning opportunities can be found at LINK TO COLLABORATIVE LEARNING MODULE WHEN IT IS READY. Remind your students that the conclusions from this semester may be only preliminary ones, and encourage them to end their papers with recommendations for students in future semesters of the course and/or in honors or independent study experiences.
Finally, the semester concludes with student presentations. If students are coauthoring papers, they can co-deliver presentations. It is important to invite relevant members of all agencies who assisted with and/or were served by this project (the city assessor, housing non-profit leaders, community development planners, etc.). Allow time for wrap-up discussion among all constituents.
Undergraduate Research/Service Learning Public Economics Course Description (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09)
A Service Learning Definition for Students (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09)
Interpretative and Evaluative Questions Handout (Microsoft Word 25kB Jul14 10)
Teaching Notes and Tips
Determining your ability and availability: If you have limited experience with student research and are just beginning this project within a course, it is advisable to do it in a semester in which you have a lighter-than-usual load.
Modifying the experience for different learning environments: The project can be modified for a variety of classroom environments and learning goals by scaling down the number of steps of the research process the student experiences (for instance, by requiring a research proposal with a thoughtful methodology as the final paper rather than a paper requiring the application of that methodology) or by intensifying one or all steps (for instance, requiring review of one or two critical pieces of literature versus many, or requiring more advanced quantitative techniques). Less intensive experiences do not prohibit later opportunities for more intensive ones. Students can contribute to a work in progress that they and/or other students can extend in future semesters and/or other learning environments (honors work, etc.). What maintains any of these manifestations as a student research experience is the creation of new knowledge by each student.
Dealing with data: In towns where paper property assessment/sale records must be pulled by researchers by hand, it is recommended that the project be (or be part of) an honors, internship, independent study, or summer research experience rather than a class project, that the number of condemned/restored properties being examined and the definition of "neighborhood" be kept to a minimum in that particular course, or that the faculty member/TA collect the bulk of the data in advance of the semester. While data collection is necessary, one shouldn't give over an entire course to the task and thereby sacrifice other valuable learning experiences.
Both open and directed reflection exercises (which can take many forms–blogs, journals, etc.) assess student understanding of the community and of personal and career-related development.
References and Resources
Hansen, W.L. & Salemi, M.K. (1998). Improving classroom discussion in economics courses. In W.B. Walstad & P. Saunders (Eds.),. Teaching Undergraduate Economics (pp. xx-xx). Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill.
McGoldrick, K. (2007). Undergraduate research in economics. Handbook for Economics Lecturers. Retrieved from http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/html.
Salemi, M.K. & Hansen, W.L. (2005). Discussing economics: A classroom guide to preparing discussion questions and leading discussion. Northhampton: Edward Elgar.