Research Methods Beyond the Classroom

Carolyn Forestiere is an associate professor of political science at UMBC.

I have always wanted to introduce some form of civic engagement in my courses, but I never thought that the subject matter that I teach – Research Methods in Political Science – could be adapted to the overall goals of the BreakingGround initiative. After attending the BreakingGround Workshop in the Spring of 2012, I realized that with some innovative thinking, virtually any course can be adapted.

I have been teaching Research Methods since 2006. Part of the students’ regular coursework included developing survey and interview questionnaires that students deliver to each other as a means for them to create their own data set to analyze. In the workshop I decided I could add great depth to my course by a identifying a group of people outside of the university that my students could interview. To serve as a foil for my young college-aged students, I decided to bring them to a retirement community in the Catonsville area. The objective of the exercise will be to gather original data for analysis from the residents at local retirement communities and to garner a sense of empathy for different groups of people.

In the early weeks of the semester I’ll teach the students how to engage in research and how to interview people they have never met about their political views. After meeting with the residents, each student will turn in a full-length paper that includes observations and conclusions derived from the interviews. Later we will return as a group to the retirement community to debrief residents about the findings. This is a way for the students to connect further with the community and to share the fruits of their research with the people who were directly involved in the project.

The ability to form empathy is something I could not teach in the classroom. The opportunity to speak with people who have had radically different experiences than theirs will be instrumental in the formulation and refinement of their worldviews. For me this is the most important aspect of the BreakingGround initiative. While I do not expect that my particular course will solve any “real world” problem, the exercise could potentially have a significant long-run impact that we cannot fully appreciate until enough time has passed. It is altogether possible that some of my students will have such a positive experience with their work that they may be compelled to think about their future in different ways.

This should be part of what education is about – to have the opportunity to study different parts of the world and to challenge one’s own way of thinking.

Contact the author, Carolyn Forestiere, at forestie@umbc.edu.

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