COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Undergraduates and Community-Based Research: Benefits, Challenges and Opportunities

 By Katharine Kravetz


Challenges to Undergraduate Community-Based Research
The Transforming Communities Experience
Elements of Effective Undergraduate Community-Based Research Projects
About the Author


While community-based research offers a wealth of opportunities for both community- based organizations and academic institutions, research involving undergraduates must be carefully considered, taking into account the students' skill level and sophistication, the nature of the undergraduate experience and time availability, and the capacity of the undergraduate curriculum to prepare students for research.  Based on the writer's own experience and that of others, this paper will discuss the challenges to undergraduate community-based research, followed by strategies for achieving positive results.  It focuses on the role of the professor in preparing students and mediating successful community-based research.  It includes examples of research projects and tools.


Community-based research has extended the boundaries of the service-learning model.  It offers faculty and students the opportunity to expand their knowledge and capacity, and at the same time provide long term benefit to communities.   It is a subject of some debate, however, as to whether the benefits of community-based research outweigh the challenges when extended to undergraduates.  (See Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker & Donohue, 2003; Willis, Peresie, Waldref & Stockmann, 2003, Stoecker 2002).   

The stated benefits of undergraduate community-based research include the following:

  • If the research is part of a particular course, it can further the objectives of the course.   At its most basic level, community-based research can be the tool for teaching undergraduates how to conduct credible research, either through a research methods course (Strand, 2000), or through thesis and capstone projects (Enos & Troppe, 1996).  In addition, courses can be related to community-based research in a number of compelling ways.  Relevant undergraduate research projects have occurred in courses as diverse as education (Maloney, 2001), environmental studies (Harkavy, et al., 2000; Strand, et al., 2003), history (Hays, 2001), and technology (Moore, 2001).
  • Undergraduate community-based research can have an impact on the community.  For example, in a partnership between the Coalition for Peace Action and Princeton University, research on the technology of childproof handguns by undergraduates in a 'Science, Technology and Public Policy' course was used to successfully advocate for legislation requiring child-safe handguns in New Jersey (Moore, 2001).  
  • Undergraduates--who for the most part are not planning research careers--can experience the practical applications of their research to the larger community, without compromising the academic standards of their coursework. 
  • Community-based research has the potential to teach undergraduates far more about the overall health of the community, and communities in general, than does service learning.  As the name implies, students involved in service-learning are providing a defined--and often confined--service, whereas students involved in community-based research are involved in problem-solving, which tends to confront them with the big picture (Strand, et al. 2003).

Proponents of community-based research insist that--while the research must benefit the student--the focus should remain on benefit to the community.[1]  Here in Washington, DC, a network of area universities has on its website more requests for research from community-based organizations than the network has been able to satisfy.  If undergraduates can contribute to these research needs, the community organizations will be better served, with considerable potential benefit to the student researchers.  Yet herein lies the tension not only in all community-based research, but particularly that involving undergraduates.  The needs of the community representative--whether it is an organization or a coalition -- may not comport with the professor's goals for the course or strategy for the community.  Even if the goals can be reconciled, reconciling the needs and capacity of the requesting community partner with those of undergraduates poses considerable challenges.  It is to these challenges and strategies for addressing them that I now turn.

Challenges to Undergraduate Community-Based Research

In order to craft successful programs for undergraduate community-based research, it is essential to deal with the particular challenges of working with undergraduates.[2]  If these challenges are not confronted in advance, faculty may find themselves having to drop or alter the research.  Equally problematic, they may become obligated to complete unfinished student research because the challenges were too formidable for the students (Strand, et al., 2003).

Knowledge of the subject matter of the research

A researcher generally needs some background in the subject matter under investigation.  At the same time, many undergraduate courses are broad-based surveys and do not deal with community-related issues or  provide sufficient in depth information in the subject to be researched (Stoecker 2000).  The question arises, can a legitimate higher education course be designed around a community need, rather than forcing the community need to fit within the confines of existing academic courses?

Research skills

The expertise needed for successful community-based research is (1) that needed for traditional academic research, including the identification, reading and analysis of sources, collection and interpretation of data, preparation of tables, and research paper writing and (2)  more specialized expertise, such as interviewing, sampling, conducting focus groups, and surveying.  Many undergraduates are weak in the traditional skills, and not familiar with those more community-based skills (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Stoecker, 2002; H. W. Ayres, personal communication, July 23, 2002).  Furthermore, faculty members trained in specific areas may not possess the skills necessary to supervise the kind of research that the community solicits.

Practical and emotional experience in the 'real world'

In addition to their lack of research expertise, most undergraduates are still in a stage of maturational development that may compromise their readiness for community-based research.   Although capable in so many 'school-centered' ways, many students have had little opportunity to develop initiative, persistence, and interpersonal and organizational skills.  Community organizations that are in need of these very skills may find themselves disappointed in even limited expectations for undergraduate research (Cummings, 2000).  It is a challenge for faculty members to work with students on developing these skills yet, as in the case of service-learning, they are absolutely essential for research in the community.

Experience in the community

Most students do not come from the community in which their college is located. Their undergraduate experience is centered on campus activities.  They are often from the middle and upper classes, with no connection to, and in fact a fear of, low-income communities (Maloney, 2000).  As a result, students often begin with limited, if any, knowledge of the community in which they are asked to conduct research (Greenwood & Levin, 1998).  Bogdan and Biklen (1998) have discussed the difficulties of conducting research in communities whose customs are 'radically different' from one's own (p. 83), and who may not even share one's definition of research or rules of communication.

To make effective use of undergraduates, it is the academic institution that must make and solidify the community connection.  Yet the reputation of most higher education institutions is that they are separated, if not alienated, from the communities most in need of the research (Colleges, communities, 2003).  In fact, they are sometimes operating at cross-purposes from community-based research.  This separation is often intensified by the institutions' concern with the safety of their undergraduates, causing them to actually advise students to stay away from those very communities.  Under such circumstances, it is committed faculty who will establish those long term connections and committed institutions that will support them.  However, as noted by Stoecker (2001) and others (see, e.g., Bogdan & Biklen, 1998), this process is a lengthy and complex one.  It involves time to identify appropriate community partners, establish relationships of trust with those partners, and negotiate the role of faculty members and students.  Once projects begin, it requires continuous faculty involvement to insure that appropriate relationships are sustained, and to deal with problems which arise when the students' inexperience tests that relationship. 


One of the major constraints on undergraduate community-based research is time (Stringer, 1996; Wallace, 2000).  Like service learning, community-based research is generally performed in the context of what is usually a one-semester course.  Community needs and deadlines have no connection to this semester-based schedule.  Some of the organizations I contact have chosen not to use undergraduates for research because their needs could not be met between September and December or January and April.  Others have found that one semester is not enough time for the research, particularly when they consider the time needed to orient students to the project and the requisite skills in the beginning, as well as the tendency of students to be tied up in course papers and exams at the end (Stringer, et al., 1997).  Even if the students are available for as long as an academic year, their numerous breaks make consistency difficult.  Undergraduates willing to provide that consistency and remain available through breaks are often thwarted by their institutions' policies of closing dormitories and other facilities and services during lengthy breaks.  With the need to establish trust with community partners (Stringer, 1996; Stoecker, 2001), the time constraints of the academic calendar can pose a considerable problem.

Another time problem occurs because each undergraduate is taking several courses at the same time, breaking up the day and making it difficult to find times to coordinate with the community and with their fellow students.  More than graduate students, undergraduates find their time divided by the number of classes they take and their extracurricular activities.  Students engaged in service learning can often pick from a number of options, selecting a time for service that fits the individual schedule of the student.  Research is different.  It frequently requires unbroken time during working hours, and time for follow-up.  Even getting together with each other and the community organization to collect, analyze and evaluate their work is a challenge.  In general, what results from this structural time constraint is that undergraduates find it difficult to gather and adequately focus on the research in a timely manner.

Furthermore, with an average sixteen-credit course load, study time, meals, and any extracurricular activities, undergraduates simply don't have much free time.  It is estimated that undergraduates engaging in community service of any kind devote an average of thirty-five hours to this pursuit in an academic year (Watts and Nashman, 1997).  To the undergraduate this may represent a substantial amount of time.  To the community this amount may be hardly enough to provide a substantial research contribution.

Time constraints are a challenge not only for undergraduates, but also for the faculty and community members who must supervise them.  Faculty who want to be involved in community-based research while simultaneously fulfilling their own teaching and research agendas have to wonder if their time is better spent training and supporting undergraduates or offering themselves as researchers to the community (Stringer, et al., 1997; Stoecker, 2002).  Community representatives who have the expertise to supervise student research often have multiple competing demands, among which undergraduate research is not a priority.  In one of the solicited projects for my class, the non-profit director stated at the end that he had not given the students the regular supervision they needed in large part because of competing and unexpected demands on his time.  Yet the students could not manage well without his guidance.


All of the above factors may compromise both the undergraduates' and the community's motivation for community-based research.  With the exception of those taking research methods courses (Stringer, 1996; Strand, 2000), students often speak of research as something they 'have' to do, not something they look forward to doing.  Lacking skills and expertise, many undergraduates find research daunting and tedious.  The result may be that they cut corners on community-based research, or abandon it altogether when they encounter hurdles.  They may find themselves unhappy with the organization, its research agenda, or the assignments they receive. 

Given all the constraints on undergraduates, the local community may also lack the motivation to become involved with them, preferring to use researchers whom they already know and trust, and whom they can be assured will be there for the long haul (Stringer et al., 1997; Stoecker, 2002).  In addition, in situations where competing community players do not trust one another (Maloney, 2000), students may find that the motivation of one player does not mean that others will cooperate with the research (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998).

Administrative issues

Faculty members who consider undergraduate community-based research in their courses may encounter administrative hurdles.  Some have been mentioned above, and include finding and paying for transportation and dealing with safety issues.  Some are built into the structure of academia in general, and their own institution in particular.  They may include the approval process for the research (Whitfield, 1999) and obtaining external funding, which can be particularly problematic when undergraduates are the beneficiaries (Strand, et al., 2003).  These administrative challenges can deter even the most motivated of faculty members.

Any one of the above challenges can be daunting to a teacher of undergraduates with many other responsibilities.  Taken in combination, they may appear insurmountable.  With a certain humility, I now turn to my own, largely unsuccessful, efforts to incorporate community-based research into my own course, in order to illustrate these challenges.  As a result of my own experience, I have collected some models of successful community-based research and will subsequently describe what these models have in common.

The Transforming Communities Experience

The fall of 2000 marked the first Transforming Communities Seminar as a part of American University's Washington Semester Program, an experiential learning program for upper level undergraduates.  Through lectures, discussion, guest speakers and site visits, the Transforming Communities Seminar links public policy to grass-roots community issues such as affordable housing, work, public safety, supports for families, and education.  Approximately twenty-five students from colleges and universities around the world enroll in the Seminar each semester.  These students represent a multitude of majors and career interests.  What they have in common is an interest in -- generally a passion for -- the issues in our communities and a hunger to address those issues.  Almost all have engaged in community service, but few have taken a service-learning or research methods class.  Yet in its subject matter, Transforming Communities seems ideally suited for issue-oriented community-based research.  Therefore, we developed a protocol for student projects in the community as part of the Seminar.  The projects could involve any strategy or combination of strategies for community change, including service, organizing, community development, advocacy, and research.

For the 2000-2001 academic year, I contacted a number of community organizations with which I had prior experience.[3]  Among the responses I received were two proposals which could be said to involve community-based research.[4]  The first, in the fall semester of 2000, was a request from a coalition of local criminal justice non-profits.  They had organized several study circles around the city to discuss the issue of ex-offenders returning to the community, with the goal of producing a report with recommendations for future action.  Participants in the study circles included family members of incarcerated individuals, members of the corrections community, and staff and volunteers of community-based organizations working with ex-offenders.  My students were encouraged to actively engage in the study circles, but because their inexperience with the issues limited their full participation, they were given the specific task of documenting the information generated by their respective circles.  Along with other members of their circle, they helped produce a final report, which has since resulted in a city-wide action plan.  In addition, the students produced an in-class project concerning the issues involved in returning ex-offenders to the community.

At one of the study circles meetings, an employee of a local government agency appealed for research assistance.  She specifically asked for a small group of students to gather 'cause of death' data from another government agency, and a larger group to survey local churches concerning their substance abuse programs.  After discussions with her, I assigned my spring 2001 students to these projects.  The first one, involving cause of death data, never got off the ground.  As it turned out, our agency partner was unable to clear her proposal with her superiors or the collaborating agency.  After consultation with me, the three students assigned to the project, who were interested in health issues, decided to conduct an independent study of community clinics.  They produced excellent data and interpretation showing the concentration of clinics in the most gentrifying areas of the city, with few clinics in the poorest sections.  However, without a requesting partner their report did not circulate beyond the classroom.

The students assigned to research faith-based substance abuse programs were divided into three smaller groups, each assigned to a neighborhood, and provided a list of local churches.  Each church was sent a mailing with a questionnaire and return envelope, as well as information on the students who would be following up with a call or visit.   Few of these questionnaires were returned, and students had trouble with follow-up when an organization did not respond.  They had limited time or funds for visits to areas that were far from campus and not easily accessible to public transportation.  When they did make contact they found many church officials reluctant to provide information on sensitive topics to unknown students, even with introductions and identifying information.  We learned that some of the substance abuse programs had not had good experiences with this particular government agency, which increased their suspicion of the student inquiries.  In addition, government and think tanks had frequently asked them to provide information and fill out surveys in the past, and they had reached the point of burnout.  As time passed it became clear that little useful information would be forthcoming. With help from me, the students switched gears and produced projects on other topics.  As a result, they were able to convert a failed project into a learning experience.  Again, however, their projects did not reach beyond the classroom.

I still utilize community projects as part of the Transforming Communities Seminar (Appendix 1).  I also still require my students to conduct research in the community.  However, I confine community-based research projects to the rare instances in which the community partner and the students match up unusually well.  I now utilize the criteria below in deciding whether to go forward with a research project in my Seminar.

Elements of Effective Undergraduate Community-Based Research Projects

My initial experiment with community-based research in my own course alerted me to some of the challenges involved.  Subsequent experience and the experiences of many others in the field show that undergraduate community-based research can have value when it is undertaken with attention to the nature of the research, the preparation, and the framework of the research process.  Along with the strategies and examples provided here, two excellent resources can serve as guides for weighing community-based research against other community projects for undergraduates, and for the actual planning of research:  a recent text on community-based research (Strand, et al., 2003) and the Service-Learning Course Design Workbook from the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Howard, 2001), whose criteria and forms can largely be applied to community-based research projects. 

Relating the realities of community-based research to the realities of undergraduate life

In deciding whether or how to engage undergraduates in community-based research, planners must take into account the challenges that undergraduates face, as described earlier in this paper.  Initially, the research skills required for any community-based venture must be those undergraduates possess or can easily acquire with appropriate training.  These skills include interviewing, conducting or assisting at focus groups, and planning meetings (Strand, et al., 2003).  The importance of insuring student competence can not be overstated, and is an argument for having undergraduates in class projects work in small groups, so that students can compensate for one another and maintain confidence and motivation  (Heather Woodcock Ayres, personal communication, July 23, 2002).

The amount of time needed to complete the research must be realistic in terms of student availability and community requirements.  At the same time, effective research often requires sustained involvement.  In consideration of the realities of community need, the Sharpe Community Partnership Program at William & Mary has allocated a full year for freshman projects (Ayres, 2002).   My program is limited to one semester, and the students' time is heavily scheduled.  As a result, we commit only to projects that the students can reasonably complete within these time constraints.  Each project proposal informs students of the time commitment, including the day and time, so students can choose a project which matches their needs and arrange their extracurricular schedules to incorporate the project.  College students must be able to conduct the research without other undue burdens, such as the cost of transportation and safety considerations.

Connecting the course to the research

Many academics who have achieved success with community-based research have commented on the importance of establishing a relationship between the research and the objectives of the course (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Harkavy, Puckett & Romer, 2000; Strand, 2000; Strand, et al., 2003).  The clearest model is the research methods class (Stringer, 1997; Strand, 2000), in which a wide variety of community-based research projects would be appropriate to learning research methodology.  In these classes, where students are learning research skills which may be needed by the community but may not have substantive knowledge of the particular area of research, students need to acquire background information in that area. 

Soliciting projects from the community and connecting them to an undergraduate class is no easy task.  As described elsewhere in this paper, the CoRAL network of which I am a member, and six other networks around the country are attempting to address that problem by soliciting projects for faculty and student research from the community.  If the projects' substance and level of expertise are clearly described, connections can be made to courses already offered in the networks' member institutions or, where appropriate, new courses can be designed to help meet the needs of the community.  Such an effort requires extensive outreach to, and a serious commitment from, member institutions and their faculty so that community needs are addressed.

Another option, though it may be controversial, is for undergraduates and/or faculty to design research projects which afford the opportunity for students to become involved with community issues (see, e.g., Stringer et al., 1997; A Success Summer, 2001).  I have my students complete a 'Perspectives on Community' project which requires them to conduct extensive asset-based research on a chosen community in the Washington, DC area.  However, this project does not involve a community partner and has the sole objective of educating the students.

As with service learning, it is important to develop reflective class and project assignments designed to clarify the connection between the research and the issues involved in the course.  Most courses have students produce a report for the community or community-based organization (Strand, 2000; Ayres, 2002).  In addition, students can be assigned one or more research papers for the class on such topics as the substantive issues involved in the research, an evaluation of the community-based organization sponsoring the research, and the relationship of policy to the issues under research. 

Preparation for the Research

The strategies and techniques appropriate for experiential learning and service learning may not always transfer to undergraduate community-based research, which frequently requires a greater level of expertise and sophistication.  Students must be prepared to engage in the research, and faculty must be prepared to supervise and evaluate it (Stringer, 1996; Strand, 2000).

Perhaps it goes without saying that the faculty member should have (1) an understanding of or experience in the subject matter and research methods which will be used by the undergraduates in their research (Strand, 2000) and (2) information on what community-based research is and how to do it (Stanton, 2000; Hollander, et al., 2001).   Faculty also need comprehensive and readily available information on the administrative side of community-based research, including materials on such issues as safety and liability, grants, and institutional review.[5]  Finally, faculty must find ways to establish appropriate community partnerships for undergraduate research, and become familiar with the community or community-based organizations sponsoring the research (Stoecker, 2002).  Established sources for partnerships like the CoRAL network can provide a launching point, especially if they contain information on whether a research project appears appropriate for undergraduates.  In locations where such a network has not yet been established, faculty must develop that information, which may take some time. 

Undergraduates must also be prepared to conduct community-based research, which is why many commentators believe that the one semester undergraduate course is a limited vehicle for this kind of research. Not only must the students be prepared in the subject matter of the research, but they may also need orientation to the community, the community partner, and the skills needed to conduct the research. Previous service-learning experience, especially with the organization requesting the research, may be valuable preparation for community-based research (Stoecker, 2001; Ayres, 2002).


If undergraduates conduct serious research of any kind, they require extensive hands-on supervision.  Community-based research is no different and may, in fact, require more supervision than traditional academic research, since the sources for the research are not centralized or easy to access, and the skills required are often different from those in traditional research (Stringer, 1996).  In the case of undergraduates, factor in the relative youth and inexperience of the students.  As a result, undergraduates need to meet regularly with both their community partner and their academic supervisor to discuss the research and make adjustments when needed (Sherman, 1999). 

This kind of regular supervision is not built into most undergraduate classes.  One strategy to address this issue is to provide one or more credit hours of the course for the research, or add an extra credit for research preparation.  This extra time could be in small group meetings with the professor or in sections supervised by graduate students (Maloney, 2000;  Moore, 2001; Ayres, 2002;  Strand, et al., 2003).  A model of effective undergraduate/graduate collaboration is that of the Northwestern University journalism and law students, who exhaustively researched death penalty cases, resulting in the release of some death row prisoners and a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois (Students Share Their Lessons, 1999).  Another strategy is to have students keep a notebook or hand in required, regular submissions on the specific progress of their research, with questions for discussion.  These submissions need to be read and returned within days, with specific comments and, if necessary, arrangements for meetings.  Equivalent models for communication can be set up on-line. 

Setting clear priorities and goals

Faculty contemplating community-based research by undergraduates must determine and articulate the goals and priorities for (1) the course being taught or planned and (2) the proposed community-based research for that course.  To engage in this exercise, faculty must consider all the issues above, including the needs of the community, the nature of the course, faculty capacity and expertise, and the capacities of the students and community partners.

Utilizing models

Fortunately, many positive models exist for institutions interested in involving undergraduates in community-based research. Several sophisticated community-based research centers have already established themselves, have web sites which describe some of their courses, and can offer models for undergraduate community-based research that benefit both community and students.  Two such models are offered here.

Among the University of Michigan's campus community partnerships is the Family Development Project, which combines community service learning and community-based research to assist Head Start Programs in Detroit.  The Project began with a series of meetings, which ultimately produced a collaborative agreement for service and research as part of a larger collaboration involving faculty, graduate social work students and undergraduates.  All of the undergraduates involved in the Project attend a year long seminar where students explore issues relevant to service learning, community-based research, race/ethnicity/gender, and children's mental health issues, the subject of the research.  Graduate students take on the more sophisticated roles as liaisons to Head Start programs and supervisors of undergraduate students, who perform service in the classroom, as well as basic research such as observations of children.  Undergraduate researchers are recruited from the University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), so they have already indicated motivation for this particular type of community work (Combining Community-based Research, 2002).

Another example of a well functioning program is the Sharpe Community Partnership Program at the College of William & Mary, designed as a residential community-oriented program for college freshman.  Students have conducted several projects appropriate to their level.  For example, social workers serving low income elderly residents in James City County, Virginia requested students from the residential first year service-learning program to conduct research on how elderly county residents living on very low, fixed incomes viewed their own unmet needs.  Staff from the program negotiated with the social work organizations to create goals that would be reasonable for college freshmen. 

The first semester the students participated in service-learning projects in the community.  At the same time they had seminars for credit with faculty members who educated them in the policy issues involved and the skills necessary for the project.  During the second semester the students developed a time line and work plan for their research and went about conducting it.  With the collaboration of faculty, staff and social workers, the students prepared questions for the residents, whom pairs of students interviewed.  They had reflective meetings to discuss the progress of their research. The results, which were then analyzed and shared by the students in a report and public poster session, were in part anticipated and in part a surprise to the social workers, who were then able to better plan and modify their senior citizen programs (Kim, 2002; Ayres, 2002).  The Sharpe program shows that, in the proper circumstances, even first year undergraduates can gain the skills needed to complete valuable and needed research in the community (Personal communication, Heather Woodcock Ayres, July 23, 2002). 


Finally, community-based research by undergraduates requires evaluation.  Evaluation tools may include student papers and presentations, evaluation by the community partner and faculty, and self evaluation.  I have found that, while the student evaluations of the community-based organizations have provided much useful information, the evaluations by the community-based organizations are less instructive, in large part because the end of the semester is generally too soon to evaluate whether the research itself is truly of benefit.  Furthermore, the organization conducting the evaluation may not have solicited information from those with whom the students actually worked in conducting their research.  In general, we need more standardized evaluation instruments in order to draw conclusions concerning the effectiveness of undergraduate community-based research.  These instruments need to incorporate reasonable goals for the research and mechanisms for measuring whether those goals were achieved.


It is a formidable challenge to cross from classroom to community (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998, Stoecker, 2002).  In particular, the use of community-based research in undergraduate courses is likely to be limited.   Nonetheless, experience shows that undergraduate community-based research can work in appropriate circumstances. It must be solicited carefully, taking into consideration the time needed for serious research.  It must be broadly defined and narrowly tailored, with clear goals and expectations for the undergraduate role and the research as a whole.  It must be supervised well and modified when needed.  It must relate to the objectives of the course, so students understand why they are doing it.  It must provide opportunity for reflection and for taking students to a new level of understanding, so that even if the actual research is not successful, students have learned lessons that they can take with them in future collaborations with communities. [6]

Appropriate and well-planned undergraduate community-based research appears to deepen student understanding of larger issues while assisting communities.  Even when it does not work, in whole or in part, it can provide all the benefits of reflection and in-depth analysis that accompanies all research.  When it does work, the extent of student accomplishment may surpass that in many other community-related projects, and the value of exposing students to community issues in depth through collaboration with communities could be considerable.  And, most important, the result may be long term benefit to a particular community, or the community as a whole.


[1]    Among proponents of community-based research, there is controversy over the question of what constitutes 'benefit' to the community and what is meant by the 'community.'  Randy Stoecker has discussed this issue with great care and forcefulness, and should be read by anyone venturing into community-based research at any level (Stoecker, 2001, 2002)

[2]     This paper concentrates on issues particularly relevant to undergraduates.  It does not focus on such issues as who represents the community, collaboration with the community, who defines and governs the research, who supervises the research, and who benefits.

[3]     In the 2000-2001 solicitation, I defined 'community' broadly.  It included any individual or organization involved in community work, including government agencies. 

[4]    A proposal from a policy organization with ties to the community also involved research for the purpose of evaluating the feasibility of drug treatment ballot initiatives in several states nationwide, not in our community.  Several students worked on this project with disappointing results, for some of the same reasons (time constraints, lack of experience) that apply to community-based research. 

[5]     When I applied for a small grant from the CoRAL network to cover student transportation costs, I learned that the project would have to pass institutional review.  This process ended up taking more of my time than did the research project itself. 

[6]      One of the most valuable exercises in my course comes at the end of the semester when students, having completed their group projects and internships, compare the effectiveness of service, advocacy, research, organizing, and politics in changing communities.


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About the Author

Katherine Kravetz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University and the Academic Director of the Transforming Communities Seminar in the Washington Semester Program at American University.  She has an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Georgetown University.  For many years she has introduced experiential projects into her courses, and her papers include The Mock Trial Course in Justice Education.


Transforming Communities Small Projects Syllabus

What are the Small Group Projects?

Small groups of varying sizes will work with me and a sponsoring grass-roots organization on a project involving some aspect of public policy and community transformation.  The projects are an important part of the Transforming Communities Seminar because they will:

  • allow you to experience practical problems in the community and ways to help solve these problems     
  • provide you with an opportunity to see the interaction of policy with practical grassroots issues, because policy is intimately related to helping communities solve problems
  • help you make both general and specific decisions about your professional future
  • help you hone your problem-solving, analytical and communication skills
  • strengthen your ability to work together as a team
  • provide some benefit to the community

I have attached a description of each of the projects, as it has been provided by the organization sponsoring the project.  The description includes an e-mail address for the sponsor. You should carefully review each description.  If you have any questions about a project, feel free to ask me or e-mail the organization.

On the date specified in the Weekly Schedule of Classes, you will indicate your first, second and third choices for a project.  I will then assign you to a project.  After you have been assigned to a project, representatives of the sponsoring organizations will discuss the projects with you.  These meetings will help clarify what types of tasks are involved in the projects, create a schedule for the semester, and give you the opportunity to ask questions. 

Thereafter your group will meet in accordance with the schedule you set with your group project supervisor.  In addition, you will meet with your small group to discuss your findings, the larger implications, and the problems you've encountered, and I will meet with your group regularly.  You will almost certainly have to devote time to the project on other days of the week and on weekends, depending on the schedule you have worked out with your community partner.  In these meetings you will discuss

  • how the group will organize its work
  • the appropriate expertise needed in order to research and complete the project
  • how to communicate with the needed people
  • how to solve any problems which have arisen
  • what needs to be done, and by whom
  • any specific assignments which your partner or I may give you
  • the relationship of the project to larger issues in community transformation

Who are the partner organizations, how did they become involved, and what are the projects?

The partners are generally community-based non-profit organizations.  They do not share a political or social philosophy, but each in its own way is trying to improve the quality of life in the community.  They became involved in the projects as a result of a solicitation from me to a group of grass-roots organizations with which I have some first hand experience--either through seminar visits, my personal contact or collaboration with the organization, or student internships -- and which I believe are committed to community change and have quality leadership.  These particular organizations wanted student help in projects that could be defined in a single semester.  They are committed to encouraging students to take leadership roles in Transforming Communities.

Your role, my role, and the organization's role

            Your role

Your group is in a role similar to an independent contractor with the organization, which is your client and which has certain goals which it wants you to fulfil during the course of the semester.  These goals involve working with, and/or on behalf of, real people who will be affected (positively or negatively) by the work of the group.

The first role of your group is to do everything possible to meet the requirements of your partner organization in a responsible, high quality and timely manner.  Your role requires leadership, maturity, organization, diligence, communication and creativity on your part.  To accomplish that goal, you will need to be sure you fully understand the goals and requirements of your project, that you keep in regular communication with your community partner, and that you make the time to complete the project. 

The second role of your group is to keep a record of your meetings and of any individual work you contribute to the project.  I will provide loose-leaf notebooks in which you will keep any written materials related to the project.  You should also maintain your own notebooks or folder of your individual work, including a schedule of your work and meetings.  I will collect your notebook regularly.

The third role of your group is to keep me informed of any problems you may be having, so I can help you resolve these problems.  I cannot stress this responsibility too much.  Too many times students wait too long to deal with problems, adversely affecting the quality of their work.

The fourth role of your group is to prepare the projects which I assign. The project sheet is attached.

            My role

I will play a secondary role as a supervisor, teacher and resource.  As your supervisor, my job is to make sure you understand the project and that you are getting the work done in a high quality and timely manner.  I may schedule meetings with you in order to make that determination.  In addition, when needed (but only when needed) I will act as an intermediary.  I will advise you if I am concerned about your work, but it is your job to take the steps necessary to complete the work properly.

As your teacher, my job is to help you understand the 'big picture' -- why you are doing what you are doing and its relevance to larger issues of policy and community change--and to assist you to develop practical problem-solving skills in communication, research and analysis.  Some of the big picture will emerge in the regular seminar classes.  On occasion, either you or I will raise issues in our discussions concerning work on the group projects.  And we will have meetings related to group project work.

As a resource person, my job is to help you find ways of obtaining information, organize your work, and accomplish the goals of the project.  Note that it is not my job to do tasks for you.  You need to get the job done and will be evaluated on whether and how you do it.

            The community partner's role

The partner's role is to define the project and your role in it.  The partner will designate a point person who will provide you the information necessary to go about your work, and to whom you can direct questions and problems.  However, you should keep in mind that your partner is most likely a small non-profit with minimal resources, staff and free time.  So help your organization maximize its role in the most efficient way possible.  And keep it informed of your progress or roadblocks.

Evaluation criteria

  • thoroughness of the student's work on the project
  • the student's initiative in terms of preparing the project and making modifications when needed
  • relationship the student established with the community and with the community-based organization
  • reliability of the student in terms of promptness, dependability and ability to follow through.
  • thoroughness and sophistication of the student's research
  • the student's understanding of the community-based organization and its work
  • the student's understanding of the relationship of the project and the grassroots issues it addresses to the larger question of community change
  • the success of the student in engaging in the group project.  Have responsibilities been fairly divided.  Has the student worked well and productively in the group, resolving differences and working toward a common solution?
  • the final product provided to the community and to the class


Engaging in these group projects can be an extremely rewarding active learning experience for you and can provide valuable assistance to your partner and the community it serves.  However, there will also be times when your work is frustrating and/or depressing.  It is not easy work to study and participate in policy and grassroots work.  However, you want to become involved in this work, so there's not time like the present to begin to expose you to the realities--both positive and negative--of working in this area.  And it is important to take those lemons and make them into lemonade!  I'm looking forward to the process and the results, both of which I hope will be meaningful to you.