Stanford course provides opportunity for students to see textbook methods in action

Pilot program was designed to first ground students in the basics of empirical research, then provide an opportunity to apply that knowledge while conducting fieldwork in an international setting.

Elena Cryst Students engaging fieldwork in Puebla

Comparing notes about fieldwork in Puebla, Mexico, are, from left, Humberto Alba, undergraduate student at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, UPAEP Professor Juan Enrique Huerta Wong, and Stanford economics students Gordon Leslie, Antonio Hernandez and Ireri Hernandez.

The Program on Energy and Sustainable Development in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and Office of International Affairs (OIA) launched a pilot collaboration last year to provide a rigorous, immersive teaching and training program for students interested in international fieldwork.  The result was a program that included a quarter-long course in the spring of 2015 followed by three weeks in Mexico during the summer to design and conduct a field research study. OIA spoke with Frank Wolak, professor of economics, to learn more about the project, titled International Field Research Training: Energy Reform in Mexico.

What was the impetus for designing a program for students with a field research component?

While students at Stanford have many opportunities to pursue independent research projects, they rarely have the opportunity to receive first-hand training in conducting interviews, research design and field implementation. With that in mind, we set out to design a program that would carry the students through the basics of empirical research and then give them the opportunity to apply that knowledge under close faculty supervision. Taking students out of the classroom and giving them the opportunity to see textbook methods in action is invaluable.

Our hope is that this training equips the students with the academic and logistical skills they need to execute their own robust research, be that for an honors thesis, a capstone project or an advanced degree.

How did the prerequisite course prepare students for working in the field?

The Stanford course taught the basics of the design, implementation and interpretation of social science field research. Building on a basic knowledge of statistical methods and economics, the course first introduced observational field research and compared it with experimental field research. Significant attention was devoted to explaining what can and cannot be learned through each type of field research.

Topics covered included sample size selection, power and size of statistical hypothesis tests, sample selection bias and methods for accounting for it. Examples of best practice field research studies were presented as well as examples of commonly committed experimental design and implementation errors. Practical aspects of fieldwork were also covered, including efficient and cost-effective data collection, data analysis, teamwork and common ethical considerations.

After completing the quarter-long course on statistical research methods, the students, under the guidance of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development's research team, adapted an education-based research intervention for the Mexican electricity sector. The purpose was to see if providing individuals with information about how their energy bill was calculated and simple ways to reduce household electricity consumption would cause household energy bills to go down.

What was a typical day for the students gathering research?

Research was carried out in the city of Puebla, a city of 1.5 million people about 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of Mexico City. The Stanford students collaborated with students from the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP). For the first few days, the students all met at an UPAEP classroom space to design and review the survey tool, making revisions and conducting practice interviews.

Once oriented in Puebla, the students set out daily in research teams to interview randomly selected households in middle-income neighborhoods in Puebla. The students branched out from a central meeting place in teams of three, pairing two Stanford students with one UPAEP student.

In the field, the students all wore nametags and UPAEP baseball caps to make themselves identifiable as surveyors to households. They worked in the field for eight to 10 hours a day, taking about an hour break for lunch. In the first few days, they were able to collect 15-20 surveys a day, but as they became more comfortable with their pitch and knocking on doors, they were able to increase their yield to a high of 44 surveys in one day. At the end of two weeks, they completed over 260 surveys in just 10 days of fieldwork.

The students were also active on social media documenting their daily activities. For more on the student perspective, their activities and impressions of the project, check out their blog on the FSI website.

What are the benefits for getting in-country field research experience?

There are a variety of situation-specific problems that are hard for any researcher to know fully without being immersed in the field. For example, one of the students' recommendations to improve energy efficiency was to switch household light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescents (CFL). This is a valid recommendation in the United States where most people still use incandescent bulbs in their homes, but – surprisingly to the team – most of the people interviewed had already converted to all CFLs in their home.

I was amazed with the students; the level of intellectual curiosity and engagement was impressive with ongoing discussions into the evening at times. The students were not only getting an in-country immersive experience while conducting research, but they were also developing critical thinking skills along the way.

Research aside, the in-country experience gave the students a keen understanding of how local residents live. The methodology employed for gathering data allowed the students to connect with many types of families, ranging from senior citizens living alone to multi-generational families living under one roof. Through direct contact with the community, the students developed an understanding of the local culture and learned local customs. 

Conducting international research at Stanford can be challenging. Where did you turn to for advice on how to structure your activity?

At FSI, we have a great wealth of experiential knowledge on conducting field research all over the world. In addition to consulting with faculty and research managers at FSI, OIA had been enormously helpful in connecting us with resources across campus and facilitating some of the trickier logistics, such as processing stipend payments to our international collaborators and navigating the human subjects approval process. OIA was also able to discern that Puebla was a viable option as a research site.

How would you characterize the success of the pilot program?

The pilot program exceeded our expectations in the best possible ways. Much of its success was due to the work of Elena Cryst ,'10, program manager for FSI's Global Student Fellows Program, who also accompanied us on our trip. She was an invaluable team leader and organizer and worked tirelessly to ensure that both the research and logistical aspects of the trip ran smoothly.

We will definitely be offering the field research course and research project again. We hope to go to another part of Latin America next, such as Chile or Colombia. We are also still active in Mexico, with three of the students that went on the trip working for us as research assistants this academic year, analyzing the data as it comes in and developing a self-administered online version of the survey instrument with which we hope to reach thousands of households in Puebla.

In addition, Elena will be using our experiences from the Mexico pilot to inform other FSI field research programs in China, Guatemala, India and potentially new sites for next year.