Using Census Data to Identify a Town's Housing Needs: A Student/Faculty Collaborative Research and Service Learning Experience

Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore, Department of Economics, Randolph College
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this classroom project, students and faculty help a local housing non-profit identify area U.S. Census tracts most in need of its assistance in promoting decent and affordable homeownership to low- to moderate- income individuals. This project further helps the non-profit with the statistics necessary to support its case for grant funds for its projects. Classroom participants collaborate on all steps of the research process, prepare research proposals on their own, and, in small groups, write and deliver a short report and presentation to an audience of class members and interested parties. While this example describes an experience in a small, upper-level economics elective course, it includes suggestions for modifications of design and learning goals for other learning levels and environments.

Learning Goals

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 reproduced from the course syllabus: Course Description for Service Learning/Undergraduate Research Public Economics Course (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09).

Through the project itself, by exploring the stages of the research process, students are exposed to skills satisfying each of Hansen's proficiencies.

Students will:

  • Be able to state the value to various stakeholders of better understanding area demographics and housing needs,
  • 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 online Census 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

This project is conducted as part (35-50% time and total grade weight) of an upper-level service learning public economics course that is an elective for the major and for which only principles of microeconomics and principles of macroeconomics are prerequisites. It is also suitable under the same circumstances for urban economics.

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). The instructor herself consults with the off-campus entities being served (here, a local nonprofit that renovates substandard homes and offers affordable financing for low to moderate-income individuals) 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.

About 2 class periods are devoted to field trips that allow students to meet and discuss their project with local leaders in non-profit housing 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 proper data collection and its interpretation. 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 Census tracts being examined. With a common process, 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. Starting Point's service learning module provides guidance on constructing these exercises.

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 review, and reviews of relevant statistics comparing the city, state, and nation. If students in previous semesters have worked on this project, it is good to include their work at this stage 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.

The quantity and sophistication of the literature should be chosen with consideration to the learning environment and expectations. If the assigned final report is intended to be a full research paper, the literature chosen at this stage should not only offer content relevant to the project but serve as clear examples of the way economists write about research. Attachment 3 is a list of works to consider. Suggested time: Half of each seminar period for first quarter of the semester, with the exception of one whole seminar period for travel.

Hansen and Salemi (1998) stress the use of factual, interpretative, and evaluative questions in developing class discussions. This instructor requires students to prepare for class discussions by generating these questions themselves. A handout, which summarizes Hansen and Salemi for students, is provided 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. Suggested time: Review of literature can be ongoing if the instructor wishes, but enough should be completed prior to midterm to for the research proposal to cite previous studies and provide sufficient project background.

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 and refinement or developed in collaboration with the students depends on the nature of the learning environment, students (number and educational background), and learning objectives. In the semester this project was conducted, students decided to collect and compare tract-level Census data on race and age demographics, as well as such factors as household income, renter/owner ratios, home age, home size, residential property values and sales prices, rents, and homeownership and renter burdens and compared them to means and medians for the city as a whole. Suggested time: This process 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 collecting and interpreting data 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 adjacent Census tracts being examined. (An aggregated analysis might be better for a follow-up honors or independent study project or in a course with more weight given to the undergraduate research/service learning 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 steps and acquiring their data from the same source, and the faculty member. Starting Point's cooperative learning module offers tips. 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.

Course Description for Service Learning/Undergraduate Research Public Economics Course (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09)

Student Handout on Service Learning (Microsoft Word 22kB Sep21 09)

Interpretative and Evaluative Questions Handout (Microsoft Word 25kB Jul14 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Determining the need: As a service learning project, to be in true service requires meeting a true need of someone else's. While this project benefits city residents, those most immediately served by this project are the city and/or housing non-profit. These are the groups that use your analysis to inform decisions affecting residents of particular neighborhoods. Confirm that your efforts can be useful to these organizations before claiming to do service for them or asking them to help you in your efforts to help them.

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 report 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.


Student understanding and implementation of the research process and achievement of Hansen's proficiencies is ascertained by the research proposal, report, and presentation, using Greenlaw's guidelines for preparing a research proposal and rubric for grading a research paper.

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

Greenlaw, S.A. (2006). Doing economics: A guide to understanding and carrying out economic research. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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

Salemi, M.K. & Hansen, W.L. (2005). Discussing economics: A classroom guide to preparing discussion questions and leading discussion. Northhampton: Edward Elgar.