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Service Learning Research

Mary J. Lopez
Occidental College
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This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this service learning project, students produced a report for a local non-profit organization in which they evaluated the effectiveness of vocational training in improving the labor market opportunities for non-college bound youths. The research report was to be used by the organization when applying for grants. Students began with an examination of the human capital model and applied the model to non-college bound youths. They then reviewed the academic literature on the economic returns to vocational training for non-college bound youths. Students then used institutional and survey data to assess the effectiveness of vocational training programs. Finally, the students presented their research findings to the organization. This project was used in an undergraduate Labor Economics course.

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Learning Goals

The goals of this project are the following: 1) To provide students with an opportunity to strengthen their research skills; 2) to provide the non-profit organization with a report that can be used as a reference when applying for grants; 3) to strengthen students' understanding of the human capital model.

Context for Use

This project works well in small classes of 10-15 students. In this particular case, 8 students were in the class. Students can be assigned various sections of the report. Students can work together in groups of two. Larger class sizes will require several different projects. For example, two or three reports can be assembled for the community partner on different topics. Or, larger class sizes can be accommodated with various community partners. Students should begin the project halfway through the semester. This will provide them with enough time to get feedback from the instructor and make any changes to the report before the report is delivered and the findings presented to the organization.

Teaching Materials

Students produced a report for Women at Work in which they evaluated the effectiveness of vocational training in improving the labor market opportunities for non-college bound youths. Women at Work is a career and job resource center serving a broad spectrum of women in the greater Los Angeles area, helping each individual to recognize and attain her full employment and earnings potential by providing job and career resources in a supportive environment. Women at Work relies on funding from donations and grants. The partnership with this particular organization was established in the semester prior to the semester in which the service learning project occurred. The Center for Community Based Learning helped to establish the partnership.

Students began with an examination of the human capital model and applied the model to non-college bound youths. They addressed questions such as: Why do some students choose to invest in a college education and others do not? How will the decision not to go to college affect lifetime earnings? Who are the students that choose not invest in a college education?

Students then began to review the academic literature on the economic returns to vocational training for non-college bound youths. Review of the literature helped students to address the following questions: How does the student benefit from vocational training? What types of data and methods do economists use to measure the effectiveness of vocational training or the impact of vocational training on labor market outcomes? Does it pay for non-college bound students to enroll in vocational training courses in high school as opposed to enrolling only in academic courses? Why would we expect vocational training to have a greater payoff relative to general academic training?

Students then used institutional and survey data collected from the local high school to answer the following questions:
1. How many vocational courses are offered and what types of training courses are offered? This information will allow students to assess whether the high school is offering the correct number and type of vocational training courses that are needed for non-college bound students to be successful in the labor market relative to students who do not enroll in vocational courses or attend college.
2. What is the race and gender composition in various training courses? Are female students overlooked?
3. What are the attitudes of non-college-bound students towards vocational training? Do students believe there is a payoff?
4. What are the costs associated with vocational training? Costs to the individual? Costs to the high school?
5. What are the benefits to the individual of participating in the training programs?

Students used the information gathered for their assessment of the effectiveness of the vocational training program. Students also addressed how Women at Work may be able to connect with local high schools to provide occupational training for non-college bound high school students.

The attached file outlines the various sections of the reports and provides a short description for each of the sections.

Once students submitted each of their sections of the report, the instructor assembled the report.
Outline of Report (Microsoft Word 24kB Apr6 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students met with the instructor to make sure that they are making progress. The instructor asked students to give weekly progress reports to the entire class. However, there were two individual meetings between the instructor and each group. Individual meetings were important for students to stay on track and to ensure that each member of the group was contributing to the project. It was also important for the students to meet with the organization before the students engaged in research. Arranging a tour of the organization provided students with an opportunity to engage with staff members and ensured that students felt connected to the project. It also ensured that students understood what the goals of the organization were and how they were connected to the research that they were conducting. The tour of the organization took place during class time. The College's Community Based Learning Center provided transportation to the site. The tour could also be arranged to take place outside of class time. Alternatively, the instructor can arrange for members of the organization to attend a class on campus.


Students were assessed on each of their sections of the report, as well as on the presentation of their work to the organization. Each section of the report was graded similar to the way a term paper or essay is graded. Presentations were also scored. However, since students worked in groups, students received a group and not an individual grade on the report and presentation. In addition, students and staff members of the organization were asked to participate in a short survey that assessed the outcomes of the goals previously mentioned. The surveys were not used for grading purposes. This particular service-learning project was mandatory and counted for 10 percent of the course grade. For a copy of the final report, please see the attached file. Final Report (Acrobat (PDF) 143kB Aug10 10)

References and Resources



Resource Type

Activities:Project:Service Learning, Activities

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14), College Upper (15-16)