Students from an honors political science class at the University of Rhode Island traveled to the Rhode Island State House last month to share the results of their semester long research projects with state legislators and policy staff. The presentations were the culmination of a semester spent tackling challenging policy topics including marijuana legalization, the future of the Paw Sox stadium, and the success of foster youth.
The presentations were part of The College & University Research Collaborative’s (The Collaborative) Public Policy Speaker Series and gave students the opportunity to answer questions from state leaders on how their research might impact important policy issues in Rhode Island. The students were there to present their research as the final assignment for an honors course taught this past spring by Dr. Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz in the Political Science department at the University of Rhode Island.
According to Dr. Pearson-Merkowitz, the goal was for the class to learn about public policy in the United States through conducting their own research, while also gaining valuable writing and presenting skills that are essential for the work world--even if students do not go on to a career in policy or government.
Student Savanna Bebe said that although this was one of the more difficult classes she has taken, it was also one of the most rewarding. “This course required a significant amount of more group work, research, writing, and editing when compared to other courses I have taken,” she said. “There was more responsibility for independent learning within our groups.”
At the start of the semester, students were asked to select research questions that had been identified by Rhode Island policy leaders. The students met twice a week over the course of the semester and worked in small groups to research their topics. The class offered a unique real world experience by allowing students to explore timely public policy challenges and then share their findings with the policy leaders who would be using their research to assist them in their decision making.
“This research would have been hard to conduct thoroughly without the ample time we received to dedicate solely to this topic,” said student Brittany Kraft. “As the semester progressed, we discovered how multifaceted and interwoven potential solutions to our research question were.”
“This method of teaching was far more influential and lasting because it was taught through practical application rather than through simply listening to a professor,” said student Bridget Hall. By researching and creating their proposals, Hall explained, the class learned about the formation and uses of public policy and gained a better understanding of their individual topics.
Prior to turning in final drafts, Dr. Pearson- Merkowitz explained that the students’ reports went through multiple rounds of editing for clarity and organization. In addition, before heading to the State House to present before public officials, the students went through multiple trial runs where they dissected what worked when presenting. “Through this process they learned to accept constructive criticism, write and speak clearly, and effectively exude professionalism,” she said.
The presentations at the State House provided the students with a firsthand look at how legislators will debate and potentially apply their findings. After each presentation the students fielded questions from the legislators in the room and were able to provide in-depth answers and additional information on their individual topics.
Dr. Pearson-Merkowitz explained that in most classes, students turn in high quality term papers and research projects, but once graded, are not revisited and end up in the recycling bin. “The reason I wanted to do this was so that all of the effort and energy that my students devoted to their research would not be just for a grade,” she said. “I feel very happy and proud of the work my students and I completed and I'm very happy for it to be public.”
“The most important thing I learned from presenting at the State House was that lawmakers care deeply about making Rhode Island a more attractive state in order to both entice residents to stay and to attract new residents,” said Hall.
Students Mark Bocchini, Catherine Garcia, Dakota Porto, and Sarah Sangeado presented on “Marijuana Policy in Rhode Island,” Bridget Hall and Michael Steiner presented on “The Future of Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium,” and Savanna Bebe, Vanessa Kolb, Brittany Kraft, and Robert Krulee presented on “Improving the Transition to Adulthood for Rhode Island Foster Youth.”
The official publications of the students’ research projects will be available on The Collaborative’s website in the coming month.
The Collaborative’s goal is to provide policymakers in Rhode Island with non-partisan academic research that will support them in their decision making. This course was developed through a grant Dr. Pearson-Merkowitz received from The Collaborative.
by Sabrina Guilbeault. Sabrina is a student Providence College and is currently interning with The Collaborative with the goal of improving her writing, research, and communication skills. She recently completed a research project for The Collaborative with Dr. Robert Hackey and Erika May on evaluating the performance of state health insurance marketplaces. Read the article here.