Presented at the EWB-USA National Conference in Milwaukee, WI.
EXPLORING SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH
METHODS FOR ENGINEERS
University of Wisconsin-Stout
**This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1540301.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation."
Introduction, Or, An Engineer, Anthropologist
and Ethicist Walk into a Bar….
Motivation: A learning experience
■ From a university’s perspective, service learning provides an opportunity for broader
impact but generally there must also be a “learning” component.
How do we strike a balance
between the needs of the
community and the needs of the
Background: Research Questions
■ Does participation in service learning such as EWB-USA contribute to a culture of
ethical STEM practice?
■ Do participants from service learning projects experience their STEM education in a
qualitatively different way than those who do not?
■ How can we learn from the on-ground experiences of students and faculty to identify
and promote best practices in humanitarian service learning for a more ethically
aware STEM culture?
■ Who is the primary client or beneficiary of SL?
■ What is the balance between helping a community versus or contrasted to student
Work to Date
■ A study methodology
■ Curriculum integration
■ Learning assessment
■ Report review
■ Case study (Ecuador)
Why Social Science Research 101?
■ Through constructing case studies and conducting interviews we’ve identified
common problems and best practices
■ Technical issues often not the difference between successful and not successful
■ Assessment key and social science can help!
Avoiding Biases and Common Pitfalls
■ What is “community” and how do you get all the diversity within it given short
■ Potential biases in the design process
■ Being told what people think you want to hear
■ Getting wrong answers from asking questions inappropriately
What Methods Should You Choose?
■ Really depends on the situation and what information you need
■ Ideal situation: multiple methods + triangulation between them
■ This can be accomplished in a short period of time with a team of the right people;
divide and conquer
■ Iterative process: data gained at one stage shapes next stage
■ Possibilities: Interviews, Focus Groups, Surveys, Participant Observation,
Observation, Social Network Mapping, Photovoice, Ethnographic Decision Modeling
Social Network Mapping
■ Pros: helpful in learning community beyond your
NGO/partners; you can see the factions, differences
within the community, find key people to get you
access to portions of a community
■ Pitfalls: Can be hard to know if you have mapped
the whole thing, people might not want to reveal
splits or tell you things they think you don’t want to
■ How to do it: Ask key people in the community to
describe who talks to who, who works with who,
who is related to who, maybe even who doesn’t get
along, etc… Draw a diagram or use a program like
Kumu; Think about having people give you a village
tour to talk about networks
■ Having a physical map might be helpful for
continuity as your chapter changes over time
■ Pros: gets widest set of opinions and community wide
■ Cons: Takes more time to prep; writing good survey
questions is hard; writing good surveys across cultural
boundaries is even harder!
■ Tips: avoid leading questions/questions with
assumptions; avoid double or triple barreled
questions; think carefully about the ordering of
questions (broad to specific, usually); think through all
the ways a question COULD be interpreted and be
explicit about what you mean; test ALL questions
ahead of time
■ Keep in mind how language and culture affect how
people will answer your questions
■ Pros: In-depth information, good for getting
views of key individuals, helps get at
issues/problems you might not have thought
of in advance
■ Cons: Can be time consuming, will not get a
representative sample of a community
■ Tips: Avoid leading questions, ask as many
open ended-questions as possible, go from big
picture to details, record and transcribe when
possible, practice questions and follow-up
■ Pros: can be more efficient time-wise; can give you a sense of community
■ Cons: can be easy to misinterpret as getting the opinions of all the people in the
■ Tips: NOT a group interview; be intentional about who you choose; use very few
questions (2-4 for an hour); two people needed to facilitate (one to observe and take
notes, one to get everyone to participate)
Ethnographic Assessment/Field Study
■ Observation and Participant Observation
■ People will tell you what you want to hear; you get a different sense of a problem by
watching people in daily life
■ Can be in the form of asking people to give you a tour of their community
■ Take notes on informal interactions and conversations too!
■ Pros: reliable information if used intentionally (what people say vs. what they really
do); can help build trust with a community
■ Cons: Can be time consuming, especially given time it can take to build rapport and
help people be less self-conscious; biases can distort what you see
Ethnographic Assessment/Field Study
■ "Rapid ethnographic assessment is an approach for rapidly characterizing the
sociocultural landscape (Beebe 1995).
■ Rapid ethnographic assessment provides insight into the socio-cultural nature of a
region by identifying the current key actors, issues, sentiments, resources, activities
and locations, and any recent changes. Rapid ethnographic assessment is
particularly useful when product demands allow little time for detailed
anthropological field work (Bauersfeld and Halgren 1996).
■ It is also called for when groups are faced with operating in a region where they have
little experience or working with an unfamiliar group (Bentley et al. 1988)."
■ Ask people in the community to take pictures of
■ things that are important to them, the things they
most want changed, etc…
■ They provide an explanation of why they took that
picture and what it means to them
■ Can be done between trips
Ethnographic Decision Modeling
■ Ask people how what they to do in specific
situations (and all the variations)
■ This gets at criteria that might not be
captured by a traditional alternatives
analysis that might focus more on
cost/benefit or objective criteria like
distance (ex. a sick child might be taken
farther to a traditional healer if there is a
belief they are more effective for certain
■ Example: class attendance
Take-Aways (In General)
■ Recent meeting at NIST, increasingly common for social scientists to join ”hard”
■ Ongoing emphasis of NSF on multi-disciplinary/cross-cutting research
■ Need for coherent, systematic evaluation
Take-Aways (In Particular)
■ Multiple sources of data + triangulation whenever possible
■ Keep an open mind and avoid biases—let people guide you
Select References and Resources:
■ Beebe, James (2014). Rapid Qualitative Inquiry: A Field Guide to Team-Based
Assessment, 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
■ Bernard, H. Russell. (2011). Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and
Quantitative Approaches, 5th ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
■ Carley, K. et al. (2012). Data-to-model: a mixed initiative approach for rapid ethnographic
assessment. Computational Math Organ Theory, 18, 300–327.
■ McNall, M. and Foster-Fishman, P. (2007). Methods of rapid evaluation, assessment, and
appraisal. American Journal of Evaluation, Vol. 28 (2), 151-168.
■ Van Holt et al (2013). Rapid ethnographic assessment for cultural
mapping. Poetics Vol. 41 (4), 366-383.
■ Sage “Little Blue” Methods Books. http://methods.sagepub.com/