From research to outreach: Tool tests students' readiness for public engagement

Amy Duke
June 23, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many college students aspire to make a difference in the world by researching issues such as climate change, urban sprawl, natural resource management and food insecurity.

When embarking on these projects, students usually have an awareness of the fundamentals of research methodology and data collection. Yet, they often lack the skills needed to collaborate and share their findings with the beneficiaries of their work — citizens.

A new online resource developed by faculty at Penn State can help educators better identify students who need additional support in honing the communication skills they need when interacting with the communities they hope to improve.

“The research process often is messy, demanding and time-consuming, especially when collaborating with communities,” said Frans Padt, a teaching professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences' Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

This is especially true when a researcher is inexperienced in interpersonal communication, is not a member of the community impacted, or is unsure of how to handle power dynamics or other aspects of human interaction that come into play.

“Students often fit this mold, and as educators, it’s our responsibility to help them learn those skills,” he said, adding that when done well, public engagement can be an empowering and transformative experience for students, faculty and a community.

His view served as the launching point for a three-year study aimed at helping students become engaged scholars. Joining Padt were Mallika Bose, professor of landscape architecture and associate dean in the College of Arts and Architecture, and A.E. Luloff, professor emeritus of rural sociology.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, culminated in a resource called the Engagement Tool.

The tool — approved by the Institutional Review Board, a regulatory committee established to review and approve applications for research projects involving human subjects — is based on an extensive review of public engagement in research and evidence-based learning strategies.

The Engagement Tool uses both a five-point rating scale and written responses to measure students’ opinions on and experiences with the personal, interpersonal, organizational and socio-political dimensions of public engagement.

The scores indicate the student’s propensity for public engagement and their reflective capacity. Padt said the tool could be used as a learning tool for self-discovery for students, as a teaching tool to develop critical thinking and reflection skills, and as a monitoring tool to gauge student progress.

The tool was trialed in three courses, including “Landscape Architecture 424/510: Community Development Theory and Design Practice,” in which students worked with Operation Better Block of Pittsburgh as part of a larger project examining the relationship between redevelopment efforts and the health and well-being in three neighborhoods.

Students in “Community and Economic Development 309: Land Use Dynamics” used the tool to advance a project on landscape preservation to benefit the Spring Creek Watershed Association and the ClearWater Conservancy. Students in “Labor and Employment Relations 460: HR Ethics” used it to complete several community service projects in cooperation with the Penn State Sustainability Institute and its Sustainable Communities Collaborative program. 

“The feedback we received from the faculty and the students about the effectiveness of the Engagement Tool validated our initial belief that students — or anyone involved with public engagement — could benefit from reflective learning,” Padt said.

Public engagement in student research has changed due to COVID-19, according to Padt and colleague Haley Sankey, assistant teaching professor and adviser in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The two agreed that the most significant issue is the inability to hold public meetings.

Despite that limitation, Sankey said, many students are moving projects forward successfully through other means, including hosting online discussions and meetings using platforms such as Zoom.

“Overall, students are incredibly adaptive and creative, and they have been able to pivot quickly and continue their work by implementing viable alternatives and modifying project plans and timelines as needed,” Sankey said. “Adaptability is a necessary, real-world skill that our students are learning by pushing forward with their engagement experiences in the times of COVID-19.”

Tara Wyckoff, assistant teaching professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, the Student Engagement Network and research assistants Archanaa Pradhapan, Tugce Aldemir, Alex Molster and Sruthi Parmeswaran also were involved with the research.

An intercollegiate advisory committee comprised of faculty from the investigators’ colleges as well as the College of Education, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and the Penn State Sustainability Institute, guided the study.

The College of Arts and Architecture and the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence funded the research.

More information can be found at

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Last Updated July 31, 2020