Carnegie Mellon University
July 08, 2020

Project Courses Provide Key Skills, Faculty Engagement

Through guided research opportunities, students are exploring issues related to COVID-19 and other topics

By Heidi Opdyke

Jason Maderer
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In a bold experiment, more than 30 Experiential Learning Project courses are serving nearly 450 graduate and undergraduate Carnegie Mellon University students this summer.

Typically during summers, many students complement their academic experiences through activities such as studying abroad, internships, research experiences at CMU or other institutions or volunteering at theater festivals or community centers, to name a few. But COVID-19 disrupted plans for many students this year.

"Recognizing the important role such experiential learning opportunities can play in our students overall experience, we partnered with faculty and staff across campus to develop creative and scalable alternatives," said Amy Burkert, vice provost for education. The 99-520 courses were provided to create experiential learning and remote research opportunities at no cost to the students. She added that the response from the CMU community members has been inspiring.

"Many faculty shared the sense that they were willing to do what they could to help the students in this unprecedented situation," she said.

Korryn Mozisek, director of integrative learning in the Office of the Vice Provost for Education, said that about a quarter of the experiential learning courses are exploring issues related to COVID-19.

"It's interesting the way that we're seeing similar issues that are addressed in different ways," Mozisek said.

The skills that students are learning in those courses will translate into transferrable job skills in the same way a research project or internship would, she added.

Goods, Services and Data

Some of the courses, such as "Creating New Economic Data for Decision Making in a Post-COVID-19 World," are wrapping up. The course is being co-taught by Associate Professors Chris Telmer, Rebecca Lessem, Ariel Zetlin-Jones and Laurence Ales.

The research being conducted by the students is part of a larger study looking at creating a data tool to describe the effect of the pandemic on consumer behavior, said Telmer who is head of economics at CMU.

There are many consumer surveys out there trying to measure how the pandemic is affecting people's purchasing and consuming behavior, Telmer said. Each survey tends to focus on one or two headline goods or services such as haircuts and restaurant meals.

"What distinguishes our team's work is that we are developing methods to measure how the entire consumption bundle is being affected," he said. "By understanding this, economists can then measure how industries and jobs will be affected, and policymakers can use the information to predict how changes in consumer behavior will affect employment and business activity."

Lessem said that the students are writing a survey to collect systematic data on goods and services.

"The students effectively wrote the questions in the survey with our guidance," she said. "They're learning how to ask the right questions in order to design an effective survey. These skills are used both in research and by a lot of employers, so what they are learning will hopefully be valuable in the future. We have a great group of students, and they're doing fantastic work."

Parvathi Meyyappan, a senior in economics and statistics and data science, said the work has been interesting.

"What type of data to include has been a constant battle," Meyyappan said. "We would love to include every question we thought of, but then no one is going to fill out an hourlong survey, so we've needed to find that balance."

Zachary Leventhal, a sophomore in economics, said that the course has been a great opportunity.

"I knew I wanted to do research over the summer," Leventhal said. "I was a little worried I wouldn't be at the same level as other people, but a number of us are rising sophomores. "A lot of what we've been doing is less centered around heavy econometrics and model-building and more focused on going through the research process and methodologies."

Ales, who directs undergraduate economics research at CMU's Tepper School of Business, said the course provides students specific skills that they can to add to their resumes.

"A lot of their work is based on deploying and analyzing a large survey, so they can talk about their skills in tools such as Mechanical Turk or Qualtrics or how to conduct a consumer survey," Ales said. "On the softer side, they are coordinating their teams in at least three time zones and they can explain the challenges and how they handled group work with tight deadlines on structured questions."

Critiquing Responses by Heads of Government

In Ignacio Arana's course, "Heads of Government and Coronavirus Response," students are helping to develop two papers and a dataset.

In one of the papers, Arana, an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy, will examine if the individual differences of heads of government from all over the world help us to understand their performance during the pandemic. In the second paper, he will examine which heads of government have used the pandemic as an excuse for power grabs.

The students also are helping to develop the World Leaders Database Project, which contains biographical information about some 1,800 heads of state who have governed from 1970-2020.

The database is part of a long-term effort to answer relevant research questions about the most powerful national politicians, Arana said. For example, do democracies select more educated leaders? Which type of leader is more likely to erode democratic institutions? How does the political experience (or lack thereof) that national leaders accumulate before reaching office explain their behavior once in power?

Bevin Pan, a senior in international relations and business administration has been helping Arana on the database for nearly two years. When internship opportunities dried up, he reached out to the professor to see how he could help. So this summer he's serving as a teaching assistant to the course and helping to train other students.

"It's been a rewarding experience," Pan said. "This is a great project to learn about world politics."

Through the research, Arana said the students are developing time management and organizational skills as well as critical thinking.

"They have to find online information that is sometimes difficult to uncover, and in many cases, they also need to identify accurate information in a context of abundant information," Arana said.

Sam Adobo, a sophomore in international relations and politics, is taking the course and said the skills he's learning about research, fact checking and writing will help him as he pursues a future in law.

"Being able to digest information as quickly as possible will be useful," he said. "I'm really liking the work so far."

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