Incorporating Community-Based Research in a Course on the Economics of Poverty

Steven Bednar, Elon University and Nicole Simpson, Colgate University
This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


We discuss how we have incorporated a community-based research project into a course on the Economics of Poverty in which groups of students work with local non-profit agencies on academic projects during the semester. In addition to providing advice on how to create and manage the projects, we include a thorough cost-benefit analysis of this pedagogical approach, including detailed student feedback that suggests that the community-based research experience enhanced their learning of the course content.

Learning Goals

The community-based research project is designed to achieve four specific set of goals:
(1) to provide students with an interactive learning experience outside of the classroom with local practitioners that will deepen their understanding of local poverty issues;

(2) to develop a project that is mutually beneficial to the nonprofit organization and students via a meaningful educational experience;

(3) to foster a sense of community between the students, local nonprofit organizations and the university; and

(4) to develop important skills for the student, including leadership skills, written/verbal communication, working with people from diverse backgrounds, and data analysis.

Context for Use

The community-based research project is a central component of a course on the Economics of Poverty, an economics elective with introductory economics as the prerequisite. We have offered the course at two different liberal arts colleges in classes ranging from 10-24 students (but the project could be scaled down and be introduced into classes of up to 40 students). The community-based projects are done in groups of 3-4 students over the course of the semester. We embed the research project into the class during the entire semester and devote several class periods to on-site work. Substituting class time is not a requirement for a successful project for those instructors who already have a full class developed and do not want to use valuable class time. For example, the research project could be built into a course as an add-on (for additional credits) or as a lab component to a class. The project works best during the regular semester, rather than a January term or short summer session.

It is important that the college or university have access to non-profit organizations that work with low-income households in different capacities (most institutions have a center for outreach/volunteerism or service-learning that can be helpful in this regard). Some organizations expressed a desire for a quantitative research project, so students were paired to organizations based on their backgrounds and skills.

Description and Teaching Materials

In many ways, the course is a typical course on the economics of poverty. It is organized into two parts: (1) defining and measuring poverty, which included concepts such as unemployment, income inequality, economic mobility, etc.; and (2) analyzing anti-poverty programs, including unemployment insurance, traditional welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, social security, disability, etc. The class was designed with the community-based research project as a significant part of the class; the research project represented 20 percent of their final grade in the class while more traditional classroom assessments such as homework and exams made up the other 80 percent of the course grade.
Community partners were identified prior to the start of the semester. Partners can be found through instructor connections, but many colleges and universities have offices and centers devoted to working with community partners. We recommend working with the community partner to develop a project before the beginning of the semester.

A complete checklist of tasks for the instructor is attached, as a way to organize the project. Students were required to produce weekly log reports (attached) so that progress could be monitored and problems caught early on.

Projects can take many forms. Students are required to learn about their organization before the first meeting to ensure they understand how the goal of the project relate to the mission of the organization. A list of previous project descriptions is given below for illustrative purposes.

Landlord Booklet - Develop a booklet that can be used to recruit and inform landlords for families who qualified for subsidized housing.

Economic Impact Study - Conduct an economic impact study for a large non-profit organization in the county.

Analysis of Budget Deficit - Analyze the trends in the usage patterns of food bank clients and track the prices of goods over time.

Website Development - Develop a website for a local nonprofit organization that had no previous web presence.

Health Clinic Data - Record and analyze data for clients of a local free healthcare clinic that could be used in grants.

Food Stamp Eligibility Initiative - Determine how many food bank clients are eligible for food stamps, and develop marketing materials for food stamp enrollment

Community Assessment - Analyze Census data and community-level opinions from a forum and survey to identify the greatest needs facing the county.

Modernizing Employment Tracking - Develop a database of employment training and outcomes for clientele of a workforce development project.

A short description of the graded component of the research project was included on the course syllabus and a more thorough description was provided to the students early in the semester, which can be found attached. For the final report, the students were required to present the results of their work to the class and their community partners, and to complete a written report.

We summarize below the main costs and benefits of including a community-based research project in the course.

(1) Loss of traditional course content
(2) Working with community organizations: establish relationships, develop projects, monitor progress, provide feedback
(3) Community organization must dedicate staff time to management of project
(4) Transportation costs for students
(5) Reputation (instructor, university)

(1) Experiential learning
(2) Engage with local community, develop sense of community, promote civic engagement
(3) Meaningful project for local organization and for students
(4) Develop life skills: leadership skills; written/verbal communication; working with different types of people; data analysis
(5) Relationships with local organizations (instructor, university)
(6) Faculty learns about issues and data availability, which may generate research projects
Project Description (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Dec23 16)
Instructor Checklist (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Dec23 16)
Log Reports (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Dec23 16)
Additional Background Information on Benefits (Acrobat (PDF) 69kB Dec23 16)
Student Assessment Results (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Dec23 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

You should clearly communicate expectations to the students and community partners early and often. The students must know they represent themselves, the instructor and the university. The community partner will expect a useful product and it is important for the students to deliver.

You should check in regularly with each group to identify any problems early to ensure that the students will stay on track to complete the project by the end of the semester. Also, market this faculty involvement to the community partners, as this may encourage their willingness to participate.

Have the students present their final project to the community organization and ask the community partner to provide feedback. This will lead to deeper engagement on the part of the students.

An integral component of linking the service-learning project to the academic content of the course is reflection. Some students may focus on the details of completing the assignment without actively connecting their experience with the community partner to the classroom learning. We recommend that the students keep a reflection journal with entries required throughout the semester.

Instructors should offer the class in semesters that work well for them both personally and professionally.

There may be some monetary costs associated with the community-based experience, and specifically travel costs. Problems do arise when students are traveling off-site, and instructors need to be prepared to be flexible by allowing for last minute adjustments to the schedule.


Students are graded on an oral presentation made to the community partner as well as a written report. We have included the instructions for these components. In addition, students are to keep weekly log reports of their progress and maintain a reflection journal.

References and Resources

Campus Compact. (2013). Creating a Culture of Assessment: 2012 Campus Compact Annual Member Survey. Boston, MA: Campus Compact.