Hands-on certificate program helps students find solutions to real world problems

New Certificate in Applied Social Science Research benefits students, community partners

Donna McKinnon - 10 August 2020

For students in the social sciences, a strong foundation in research methods and the ability to interpret the findings of others are essential. The new Certificate in Applied Social Science Research (CASSR), offered for the first time in the Winter 2020 term, provides this foundation. Students will learn quantitative and qualitative research methods, as well as have opportunities to engage in hands-on research in the community.

CASSR is an initiative co-created by Michelle Maroto and Gillian Stevens in the Department of Sociology. Maroto, whose current research projects include the large-scale Great Canadian Class Study, which seeks to better understand the complicated dynamics behind social class in Canada, is a strong believer in hands-on research opportunities for her students.

‘I try to use research to make a difference, which is why I emphasize policy, applied research, and partnerships with community organizations in my research and teaching.”

As part of the certificate, students must complete a capstone course that involves independent research. This can be done through a self-designed project, or by taking a course in Sociology — SOC 415: Applied Research Internship — which Maroto teaches. She calls it a ‘true favourite’ of hers because of its interdisciplinary nature and atypical structure.

“Students work as a team through all the stages of research, from designing the project to collecting and analyzing data to presenting results to the community partner — which could be a local nonprofit, business, or government agency — at the end of the term,” she says. “We also include a series of professionalization workshops that focus on building resumes and learning about life after university.”

During the Winter 2020 semester, Maroto’s class partnered with Capital Region Housing (CRH), the largest provider of social and affordable housing in the Edmonton area. Through a series of customer and staff interviews, students explored rising housing costs and low vacancy rates in Edmonton.

“The students spent three weeks on-site at the downtown CRH office and conducted a total of 113 surveys with customers and 15 in-depth interviews with staff members,” says Maroto. “We then broke into groups to analyze the data and answer four central research questions. Our final report highlighted the different methods customers used to access CRH services and described some of the obstacles they faced when accessing these services.”

Maryam Rana, who graduated in June 2020 with a double major in Sociology and Comparative Literature, says that the certificate program helped her see the relevance of what she was studying beyond the academic space. 

“I was able to do meaningful research for a local organization that focused on helping people — exactly what had motivated me to choose this degree in the first place,” says Rana. “Applying for jobs now I also really see the value of statistical education as well as experience working with organizations.”

Another graduate of the certificate program, Mark Soriano, agrees. “You work towards developing solutions to real-world problems that clients and stakeholders are currently experiencing in the field,” he says. “There’s a greater emphasis on innovation and applicability in the work.”

While the COVID-19 shut-down prevented students from presenting their findings in person at the end of the semester, they were able to meet with their CRH partners via Zoom to discuss the final results.

Esther de Vos, CRH Director of Policy, Research, and Education, the primary contact for the project, sees great value in the ongoing partnership, as does Meryn Severson-Mason who has been involved with the program since she was a sociology undergrad and currently, as a CHR policy and research analyst.

“The students brought a lot of enthusiasm to the project,” says de Vos. “Working with a client in a real world environment improves their skill set, and at the same time, the data they collected will ultimately help us better deliver frontline services to our customers, so both organizations benefited from the partnership! We really enjoyed working with the students.”

Overall, Maroto says the inaugural year was a success, with 23 students completing and graduating with the Certificate.

“I honestly wasn't sure what to expect in terms of take-up, but there was a very strong turnout for our first year,” she says. 

With remote learning a possibility for the Winter Term, Maroto explains that while conducting applied research during a pandemic will be challenging, it is not insurmountable.

“We just have to think differently,” she says. “It might mean working with more administrative data and records that community groups have already collected. It also might mean conducting interviews and focus groups using Zoom or similar technology. As always, the projects will be developed with our community partners and will vary based upon their needs and goals. I am hopeful, though, that we'll be able to build strong projects that still provide students with lots of experience in conducting applied research.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Certificate in Applied Social Science Research through the Department of Sociology, please contact cassr@ualberta.ca