Integrating Research Project Into Teaching

By Kalpana Khanal, PhD

As professors, we continually seek out ways to apply abstract theoretical constructs to real-world situations. We want students to grasp the relevance of theoretical concepts to better understand this world we live in. We desire that our students acquire critical thinking skills so that they will be able to evaluate the quality of information.

One of the aspects of the Economics department at Nichols College is the core belief that there is synergy between teaching and research. Many studies have also shown that undergraduate research holds the potential to increase learning, retention, graduation rates, and entrance into graduate programs.

In order to achieve some program-level and broader institutional goals, starting from my first semester as a professor at Nichols I tried to integrate a research project into my Money and Banking Class. Students in this class are encouraged to apply theoretical concepts learned in class to analyze a real-life economic issue or policy through hands-on experience, conducting research in a collaborative setting with other students in the same class. I try to guide them through the process so that they can break down the project responsibilities with each other and use the time wisely over the course of two to three months.

In addition to providing all the students in the class with the opportunity to conduct collaborative research, I also wanted to be a mentor to some of the academically oriented and hard-working students in my class to produce a paper that could be presented at an established academic conference. In the long run, my goal is to collaborate with students to publish papers in various outlets.

In this blog I am going to share my experience mentoring three of my students who were able to present their class project to Western Social Science Association, Association of Institutional Thought conference that took place in San Francisco during April 2017. Some student reflections are included below in italics.

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The research project started as an informal conversation with Matthew Marcantonio ’19, a double major in Economics and Finance. Having known Matt as a driven, diligent young man who enjoyed challenging problems, I asked him if he would be interested to work on a research project with a goal to present at an academic conference. Matt loved the idea and decided to do his honors project on the topic of “Student Debt Problem in the United States,” very relevant to his generation. He wanted to collaborate with two of his peers, Nicole Ross and Nick Deangelis. Student reflection:

In the Fall semester of 2016, I took the Money and Banking class with Professor Khanal. Part of the class included a semester-long research project in which groups of 3-4 students explored a topic of choice. In my time at Nichols College, this was my first extensive research project and I feel as though I have gained a tremendous amount from it.

In choosing an area of study, the idea of student loans came up. Student loans were of particular interest to us as we each have them and student loans is a rising concern in the U.S. Fast forward a few months later and our paper/proposal was accepted to the Western Social Science Conference in San Francisco, CA.

The student group was also able to showcase their research findings to the campus community through Fischer cultural event. The event also provided them with an opportunity to receive feedback from other professors.

Turning our paper and presentation into a Fischer Cultural event was of great benefit. At our event, we recorded an audience of around 60 people. It helped us to practice our presentation and get comfortable speaking to a large audience. The cultural event also helped us to get advice from professors of different fields. For example, we received visual advice from Mauri Pelto and mathematical advice from Professor Naigles.

The successful conference presentation/experience was possible because of the contribution of many aspects of Nichols College learning environment.

The conference was also a great opportunity to further expand my networking skills. All of the communication skills and elevator pitches learned through PDS classes helped out tremendously. In fact, on multiple occasions, individuals would step into the elevator and say something like, “Oh, Nichols College, I know someone who goes there.”

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Student Loan Presentation (002)

Sample slide from student presentation

Students were also excited to network with the author of the textbook they used in their money and banking class.

At the conference, we had the pleasure of meeting Randall Wray, the author of Modern Money Theory, the book we had read in Professor Khanal’s class.

Seeing our students present their research (click for short clip) in front of world-class scholars made me immensely proud. The question-and-answer session following the presentation was very effective. Students were confident and comfortable entertaining questions from renowned scholars in the field.

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In addition to the academic and networking benefits of participating to a conference students found the cultural experience to be valuable and eye opening.

As someone who has lived in a small town in Maine all their life, California’s culture was very different, despite the fact that it is still within the Unites States. The overwhelming homeless population was what surprised me the most. Relating it back to economics, I was able to see a great representation of an unequal distribution of incomes. Lamborghinis and Maseratis drove by as a homeless man with bare feet lay his head down on the brick sidewalk for a nap. The homeless problem in San Francisco also takes a heavy toll on the economy, affecting businesses, city budget, public health, and much more.

Aside from the income gap, I was also exposed to many different types of food. Throughout the trip we tried Ethiopian, Italian, Japanese, and even Nepali. It was great to try Nepali food with Professor Khanal and learn more about her home and culture.

Overall, this was an excellent opportunity for our students to apply their knowledge to a very relevant social issue. This experience also provided our students a valuable lesson on leadership and teamwork. Travelling to a new city for the conference was also very beneficial in terms of cultural experiences and exposure to broader social issues such as unequal income distribution.

The teamwork aspect is so important and I think that is the major takeaway that I will have from this project, aside from the economic knowledge that I have gained.

 

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