Student Engagement in Academic Research: A Win-Win
Wednesday, February 10th, 2021
Student Engagement in Academic Research: A Win-Win
For Gabrielle Barkman, moving to Grande Prairie from a tiny town in Manitoba was a tremendous shock to the system, especially at the tender age of 15.
“My entire high school back home had only 100 kids in it,” she said. “Coming to Grande Prairie, I definitely felt a lack of belonging and connection and some of the repercussions that come with that.”
Now 24, Barkman’s experience has come full circle as she works as a research assistant for a study on civic engagement and belonging among at-risk youth in Grande Prairie and Jasper. She’s among several GPRC students recruited to work as researchers on the two-year, Social Science and Humanities Research Council funded project, led by College instructors Dr. Connie Korpan and Dawn Moffat McMaster.
Research on these two resource-dependent northern Alberta communities is particularly valuable, said Dr. Korpan and Moffat McMaster, because the outcomes of alienation and a poor sense of belonging often include lower levels of education and higher rates of poverty, crime, homelessness and suicide. Exceptionally high population growth among youth in the Grande Prairie region, combined with lower than average high school graduation rates, indicate the need for early community intervention to prevent greater social problems later on.
“In a community that’s willing to invest in youth, you’ll see a much larger social return on whatever interventions or prevention they bring in,” said Dr. Korpan, who has led multiple research studies on complex social issues. “It makes sense that you would start with youth, as it is much more cost-effective than dealing with a crisis that could happen later.”
Dr. Korpan also points out that colleges are naturally set up to do this type of community-based research because of the connections they typically have. “You’ve got small communities where people know one another and faculty who are engaged outside the classroom, so I think we are a better fit to do this research in many ways compared to large institutions.”
For Barkman, in addition to working on a topic that resonates with her personally and adding valuable work experience to her resume, being a student researcher also allows her to play a frontline role in influencing social policy. “This is true applied research, not something that will be forgotten afterwards,” she said. “It was cool to realize that it would actually have an impact on the services and resources we would see in the community.”
Her job description includes interviewing young people the same age as when she first arrived in Grande Prairie. “It's extra impactful now to hear the perspectives and recommendations of people that age because some of the things they come up with, I wish I could have accessed myself,” said Barkman, who graduated in 2019 from GPRC’s Bachelor of Arts program in psychology.
“It’s so interesting that through studying connection and belonging, I've experienced so much more connection and belonging myself.”
For recent graduates considering a career in research, practical experience provides a boost in obtaining future employment and a chance to form lasting connections in the community.
“The network of contacts I have in the community has really expanded in the last couple of years,” said Moffat McMaster. “I’ve had to opportunity to share this research with the community, and they’ve been really excited about. Places like Grande Prairie that are not necessarily rural - I like to call us a remote urban centre - don’t really make the big research articles. So, there’s been a lot of excitement to know more about the place we live, to understand it better and to make that information useful.”
Coaching students to take advantage of these research opportunities, learn the specific skills that are required and witness first-hand how they can be applied to the wider academic world has been rewarding, said Moffat McMaster. But the integration of students in research projects has also been valuable for ensuring better outcomes.
“They always have a lot to say,” she said. When I brought up our methodologies in class, one student recommended a specific platform to be able to reach certain individuals, and I had never heard of it. When we talked with our youth researchers or research assistants about the design of our survey, they were able to say, ‘You should change the wording here, or there should be a different focus there, or you’re missing this question. It’s been fantastic for us to benefit from their expertise too.”
GPRC offers a range of resources for students who are interested in getting involved in research at the undergraduate level. GPRC’s new Centre for Teaching and Learning is a central hub for students, staff, and faculty to access a complete suite of research and educational services. Students interested in research should also stay in touch with GPRC’s Research and Innovation department for the most current opportunities: gprc.me/research