Grant supports expansion of community-based research

From the Oct. 9, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

For nearly a decade, Princeton’s Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) has brought together students and community organizations for research projects on pressing issues such as poverty, criminal justice and environmental preservation.

Now the University is embarking on an endeavor to expand its community-based research efforts and to support the development of similar initiatives on campuses nationwide. CBLI has been awarded a federal grant of $445,000 annually for the next three years to lead a new consortium of 20 institutions looking to establish their own community-based research programs.

The grant was awarded by Learn and Serve America, an initiative administered by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which provided funding to help Princeton launch CBLI in 1997.

“Princeton is taking the lead in saying that community engagement and partnership between universities and local organizations are an important part of the academic enterprise,” said Peter Quimby, associate dean of the college, who oversees CBLI along with its assistant director, Trisha Thorme. “One of the things we want to do is try to help shape the debate in academic circles about the contribution this kind of experience can make to undergraduate education.”

Each semester, 12 to 15 courses across a range of departments include an option for students to engage in a CBLI research project with a community partner. Princeton students also can work with CBLI to identify community-based research projects for their junior papers or senior theses. Typically, 250 to 300 students each year pursue community-based research projects in a CBLI-affiliated course or in their independent work, collaborating with some 50 service organizations in Princeton, Trenton and other local communities that have established partnerships with CBLI.

Community-based research is different than “service learning” programs that are more prevalent on college campuses, Thorme noted. Service learning typically involves students volunteering with a community organization and then reflecting on that experience in a paper for a class, she said.

“Service learning is a fairly accepted part of academia these days, but community-based research is an emerging practice,” Thorme said. “Community-based research is distinctive because, instead of a more traditional term paper, students are doing a research project that is driven by the work of the organization but still academically related to the class.”

The Learn and Serve America grant will enable Princeton to pursue two goals: to enhance the CBLI program; and to expand the field of community-based research by supporting new programs on other campuses and finding more effective ways to share experiences and resources.

The grant supports the creation of the National Community-Based Networking Initiative, which includes Yale, Duke, Notre Dame, Rice and Washington and Lee universities, and Allegheny, Dickinson and Hamilton colleges. The networking effort is led by CBLI and the Bonner Foundation, a local service organization that has been a key CBLI partner since its inception. The group held its first meeting in Princeton in late September.

“Many colleges and universities want to expand their programs to include community-based research, and they call us for advice and information,” Thorme said. “Rather than having everyone re-invent the wheel, we will work to create resources and templates for everyone to use across the country.”

Plans include crafting tools to assess the impact of community-based research on student learning; documenting innovative research practices; and developing Web site templates that institutions can use to more efficiently share research results and provide more useful information to their local communities.

Hank Dobin, who oversaw the development of CBLI as Princeton’s associate dean of the college until last year, is participating in the networking initiative in his new role as dean of the college at Washington and Lee University.

“CBLI has flourished at Princeton for several reasons: the tradition of service and community involvement among students; energetic leadership by Trisha Thorme and others; support from the highest level of administration based on the recognition of CBLI’s value both to the University and the community; productive partnerships with local organizations and agencies; and the endless creativity of the Princeton faculty and students,” Dobin said. Its success, he added, “can be replicated on any campus that is committed to building connections with surrounding communities and engaging the intellect, idealism and energy of its students to help ‘repair the world.’”

Supporting new projects

Through the CBLI program, Princeton students have pursued diverse research efforts in conjunction with local organizations, investigating topics such as poverty, crime, health care, housing, urban revitalization, immigration, education and environmental conservation. Students have engaged in projects ranging from studying the effect of vaccine shortages on immunization rates in the Princeton area to exploring the history of the Capital South neighborhood in Trenton.

By enabling CBLI to pursue additional research opportunities at Princeton, the new grant puts the University in a stronger position to help other institutions develop their community-based research programs, according to Quimby. A major goal is to create new courses centered entirely on community-based research.

“This will help us figure out how to make community-based research a more central feature of the curriculum,” Quimby said. “Doing community-based research takes a fairly high level of faculty commitment and coordination with community partners. Knowing what it takes to support that on a larger scale is something that the Learn and Serve America grant will help us work out in conjunction with colleagues.”

“There are many faculty members here who are enthusiastic about community-based research, but also many who find it difficult to invest the kind of time and energy it takes to partner effectively with a community organization,” he noted. To address this issue, CBLI is developing a faculty fellows program to provide support to faculty members interested in designing new courses based on community research.

The first effort under this program is a course on urban poverty that will be offered this spring by Katherine Newman, professor of sociology and public affairs, in partnership with Isles, a Trenton-based community development organization. CBLI supported a graduate research assistant, Elisha Smith of the Woodrow Wilson School, to work with Newman in developing research questions that will serve as a basis for the course and inform Isles’ work in assisting low-income area residents.

The course will cover areas in which Isles has established assistance programs or is considering developing new initiatives, such as: mortgage lending for low-income homebuyers; chronic health problems, such as asthma and complications from lead exposure, which plague inner cities; and career development for high school students who have had problems with the law.

“The idea is to take issues that we know are significant from a scholarly point of view in understanding the contours of urban poverty, and to give our undergraduates an opportunity to work in teams with a real organization that really will make use of their ideas and really will depend on them for first-rate research,” Newman said.

“This is the kind of thing that more mature students in the Woodrow Wilson School do at the master’s level, but I think our undergraduates are capable of this kind of engagement and that we have something to gain by contributing to the general neighborhood of which Princeton is a part,” she said.

Seeing it face-to-face

In addition to supporting research in courses, CBLI also sponsors a summer internship program that places students in positions with nonprofit organizations and requires that one-third of their time is spent on research for their senior theses.

Justin Conway, one of seven CBLI interns this past summer, worked with the Mount Carmel Guild of Trenton, which provides emergency assistance, preschool education and home health care services to poor residents. Conway, a sociology major on a pre-med track, helped distribute food to those seeking assistance from Mount Carmel Guild and also conducted thesis research by devising a survey on health care issues that he gave to the organization’s clients.

“Through talking with my co-workers and with social workers who came in with the clients, I got a really good understanding about what goes on in terms of health care in inner cities,” Conway said, noting that many people he met this summer have to navigate a complex network of insurance and government assistance programs. “I’m interested in seeing how the doctor-patient relationship has changed and what roles the social workers are filling in mediating that relationship.”

“I’ve read many books and articles that talk about the problems in our health care system and the people who fall through the cracks,” he said. “But to be able to see it face-to-face and to interact with them was invaluable to me and will be a big contribution to my thesis.”