Teaching Local Economic Development Using Problem-Based Service Learning

This page authored by Nancy Brooks based on a course taught be her at the University of Vermont.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: November 30, 2010


The course was a senior-level 3 credit seminar designed primarily for junior and senior economics majors and minors. This capstone-type course offered an opportunity for 18 students to learn about urban economics as it applies to local economic development while being actively involved in the actual practice of community and economic development through a partnership with Burlington's innovative Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO).

Specifically, Students conducted the following activities for CEDO's economic development division:
1. Collected data to enable an up-to-date understanding of economic/demographic trends and conditions in Burlington and the region. CEDO has previously hired outside consultants to periodically produce a data rich document titled "Jobs and People." My students put together "Jobs and People IV." Key contributions unique to J&P IV were the construction of time series based on NAICS instead of SIC industry codes and the addition of variables to reflect Burlington's movement away from manufacturing to an economy based more on the arts, technology and sustainable agriculture. This report is now used throughout the state of Vermont.

2. Developed a dataset in excel with formulas and sources that makes it easy for CEDO staff to keep "Jobs and People" continuously updated and to modify the data and charts to meet their changing needs. CEDO will now need to rely less on expensive outside consultants.

Students conducted the following activities for CEDO's community development division:
1. Conducted a survey of Burlington residents on their quality of life in the historical but economically challenged Old North End neighborhood. The survey was also designed to gather information about the types of supports residents want and to identify the role played by CEDO sponsored neighborhood associations in resident perceptions of quality of life.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The learning goals listed below are divided into academic, student development and civic engagement.

Academic Enhancement Goals

1. Identify current theory and practice of local economic development. Especially as it relates to core concepts in microeconomics and urban economics. See the syllabus (Microsoft Word 61kB Mar29 10) for readings and topics.
2. Use analysis, surveys, and other research methods

Student Development Goals
3. Practice written, oral and other forms of communication

4. Practice their skills working independently and in teams

Civic Engagement Goals
5. Provide findings to CEDO (Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office) that contribute to the well-being of the Burlington economy.
6. Contribute to the building of lasting educational partnerships between the University of Vermont, CEDO and the community.

Context for Use

This was a full semester senior seminar-style course with a dedicated teaching assistant and a strong partnership with Burlington VT's Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO). Prerequisites for students were intermediate-level microeconomics and proficiency with basic statistics and data analysis.

This service-learning activities conducted in this course could be easily replicated in communities or cities of any size. In fact,
the Jobs and People analysis has been replicated by Kristen Jones at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. She partnered with the local chair of her regional Chamber of Commerce.

Description and Teaching Materials

Syllabus (Microsoft Word 61kB Mar29 10)
Jobs and People Final Report (Acrobat (PDF) 614kB Mar29 10)

Final Reflection Exercise (Microsoft Word 21kB Apr13 10)
\job spreadsheet\ (Excel 565kB Apr13 10)
\'People\' spreadsheet (Excel 236kB Apr13 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

These teaching notes have been written to correspond with the Incorporating Service-Learning in Economics module on this website

Preparing and Designing

  • Define the economic issues or learning goals for your course
The learning goals are described above. The economic issues involved assisting CEDO in gathering and analyzing data related to quality of life and economic trends and conditions at the neighborhood, the city and the greater labor market shed (i.e., the metropolitan statistical area). The data would be used to develop policy to promote sustainable economic growth and equity.
  • Identify and contact community partners which can support these learning goals.
A good partnership is designed to serve both community needs and campus/student needs.

Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) met students' needs for a stimulating educational experience. CEDO is an organization that is a catalyst for many development projects in Burlington VT. CEDO's mandate is to work with the community to foster economic vitality; preserve and enhance neighborhoods, quality of life and the environment and promote equity and opportunity for all residents of Burlington. While CEDO is recognized nationally as a progressive innovator in community development, most communities have some type of economic development agency which makes this course replicable anywhere.

Moreover, the students met the needs of CEDO and their constituencies. CEDO is funded through federal and state grants. The bulk of CEDO's funding comes from competitive CDBG grants that are largely determined by actual community and local economic development outcomes. CEDO has a need for a variety of data to support their project work that they have trouble keeping up-to-date because of a lack of internal staff or money to hire consultants. Economic students can ably provide this service.
  • Together with community partner design a range of service activities to accomplish these goals.
The project and service goals of this course were:

1. Collect comparative economic and demographic data on Burlington neighborhoods, the city, the metropolitan area, Vermont and the U.S. The students created a report titled Jobs and People IV which summarized economic trends and conditions. The URL for the report is http://www.cedoburlington.org/business/J&P_IV/j&p_iv.htm

2. Students also developed excel spreadsheets with sources and formulas to allow CEDO to more easily keep the Jobs and People data up-to-date in the future without student assistance. The spreadsheets for employment (Jobs) (Excel 565kB Apr13 10) and demographic (People) (Excel 236kB Apr13 10) data attached.

3. Students were invited to present their findings to the community at the end of the semester and later at a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston meeting of their Community Development Advisory Council in June 2007.

4. Students conducted a survey of Burlington residents on their Quality of Life in the historical but economically challenged Old North End Neighborhood. The survey was also designed to gather information about the types of supports residents want and to identify the role played by CEDO sponsored neighborhood associations in influencing residents' perceptions of quality of life. The survey data was summarized and distributed to the community in a flyer (Acrobat (PDF) 259kB Apr13 10) and has been used by CEDO to write grants.
  • Develop an agreement to clarify expectations and responsibilities of faculty, community partner, and students.
I began my conversations with CEDO in August of 2006 in preparation for my Spring 2007 course. While allowing ample time to develop the partnership and define the projects is necessary for the success of the course, it is not a sufficient condition. There is a substantial degree of messiness and improvisation in any S-L course.

Implementing a Service Experience

  • Introduction to service-learning and course learning goals
The first week of the course introduced students to service-learning and course objectives. See syllabus. (Microsoft Word 61kB Mar29 10)
  • Prepare students for service by introducing students to their community, community partner, mission and clients
Students met with community partners during the third week of the course and then on regular intervals throughout the semester. Students did not, in general, work at the the partner site. This minimized day-to-day logistical issues. CEDO did request that students do their surveying in the Old North End (ONE) Neighborhood with one of the Americorps-Vista volunteers that worked with CEDO and were assigned to the ONE neighborhood. Thus, students did need to coordinate their schedules with these volunteers.
  • Building student capacity: The course structure was designed to build student capacity for success with all of the learning and service goals. To achieve those ends, the course had both a traditional lecture structure and a "task force" structure. Students were assigned to a "task force" for their service work. The course had three task forces. One task force focused on the Quality of Life survey work and the other two task forces focused on the Jobs and People data compilation and analysis. The course met for 50 minutes periods three times per week. A typical week had a class period devoted to each of the following:
    1. Learning about an aspect of the theory of local economic development. During this class time the course has a lecture structure.
    2. Learning relevant skills and analytical methods needed to be effective in their service work. This class time might be either lecture or task force depending on the skills being taught. For example, learning how to gather and and analyze census data would be taught as a lecture but role-playing effective surveying techniques might be done within a task force.
    3. An opportunity to work together in their task forces and present work-in-progress from their task force to the entire class.
  • diversity and team building: building capacity to work with people who are different from one's self
Students used the truecolorscareer.com quiz to learn about how they were similar and different from their classmates and to be self-aware as they built their teams. This exercise enabled them to get to know each other and helped them build balanced teams.
CEDO organized role-playing exercises for students to practice surveying low-income households. They also provided concrete advice (Microsoft Word 266kB Apr13 10) on how to canvas a neighborhood for survey respondents.

Learning through Reflection

  • Reflection connects academic learning with meaningful service
  • learn more about their skills, talent, interests, capacities and motivation
  • reflect on the role, impact and consequences of economics in a civil society
A very significant part of their academic learning in this course came from the quality of their reflections. Students were often but not always given prompts for their reflections. A rubric (see teaching materials-link) was used to evaluate their reflections. It became very clear to students that the ability to critically reflect on their experiences would be a key mode of learning after learning school.

Early in the semester a course period was devoted to discussing critical reflection. What it is and the role it plays in their education. The reflection exercises are further discussed below in the section on assessment.
    Students were asked to reflect often in their journals. Three times during the semester they were asked to turn in two or three "best" reflections for assessment.


Students were assessed on the typical requirements of attending class (in a S-L course, attendance must be required), preparing assignments, presentations and their project work. Students were also required to keep a journal recording questions, ideas, information and critical reflections related to the class and their projects. They were provided with a rubric (see references below) that was used to grade the quality of their reflections.

The nature and role of assessments and evaluation in service learning courses is discussed at the bottom of the in the implementing service-learning in economic page of this module. The distinction between formative and summative assessment is addressed at that link. Most of the assignments in the course had both a formative and summative role.

Primarily formative assessments of learning included use of a discussion board to stimulate journal writing and critical reflection. Students, faculty and the teaching assistant offered feedback to student posts.

Examples of prompts used on the discussion board included:
1. What would make Burlington a place where you would want to spend your life.
2. Can you identify market failures in Burlington that impacts the city's economic development
3. Can you identify examples of agglomerations economies (either urbanization or localization) that have contributed to Burlington's density?
4. Where do you see social capital at work in the community.

Their final reflection essay (Microsoft Word 21kB Apr13 10) also played a role in assessment.

References and Resources

Koliba, C. (2004) Assessing Reflection Assignments for Public Affairs Courses: Implications for Educating Reflective Practitioners, Journal of Public Affairs Education contains a very useful grading rubric.