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Social Science Research Lab

Social Science Research Lab

Project-based learning. Real-world applications.

Jessica Sperling, teaching

The Social Science Research Lab, piloted in 2018 and 2019, provides undergraduate students a foundational and applied experience in social science research methods, principles, and their real-world application.

Each Lab course is associated with an applied partner program that provides a topical focus for the real-world application of research methods. In 2018 and 2019, the Lab worked with Duke Institute for Health Innovation (DIHI) as the inaugural applied partner. Ultimately, the Lab aims to further applied undergraduate opportunities in the social sciences, including from early in an academic trajectory; to integrate structured research methods instruction into an applied context; and to augment opportunities for responsive and ethical research-based community engagement.

The Lab is based in the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), drawing from the SSRI’s work in evaluation and applied/community-engaged research. It is affiliated with the Bass Connections Education and Human Development (EHD) theme and also received support from Service Learning. In 2018 and 2019, it served as an elective for the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate, the Science & Society Certificate, and the Civic Engagement & Social Change Certificate elective (if aligned with a student’s pathway within the certificate). In 2019, it also served as a methods course within the Sociology major and, with DUS permission, built towards a Global Health major. This lab operates with a core semester (Semester 1) and an opportunity to continue active research in subsequent semester.


Core Semester (Semester 1)

In 2018 and 2019, Semester 1 included a dual focus on: 1) healthcare administration and innovation, including interviews with Duke Health representatives on these topics, and 2) methods/processes in social science research and social science-based evaluation, including responsive partner engagement. The course met two days/week and typically alternated between focus on these two themes. Applied research and evaluation content was led by Jessica Sperling, PhD (instructor, SSRI), with additional student mentorship and course development support from SSRI’s Megan Gray, MSW and Allison Carmody, a graduate Service Learning Assistant. Healthcare/DIHI content was led in 2018 by Will Ellaissi, MBA (instructor, DIHI) and in 2019 by Dr. Jon O’Donnell (instructor, Duke Health’s Dept. of Orthopaedics), with added support from DIHI’s Krista Whalen.

Drawing from this context of applied research & evaluation and healthcare administration & innovation, student teams developed research/evaluation proposals for three DIHI-supported and Duke Health-implemented healthcare innovation projects. These projects dealt with diverse areas of healthcare innovation (e.g., predicting cardiogenic shock using machine learning, utilizing patient reported outcomes in clinical treatment, and addressing provider burnout). This iterative proposal development process provided an active means of applying students’ research and evaluation learning to the healthcare administration and innovation context.

Continued Student Engagement (following Semester 1)

Following semester 1, and based on partner interest and project fit, students have the opportunity to engage in implementing a proposed evaluation research study with one of the project partners. This was carried out following the Spring 2018 pilot class. Starting in Fall 2018, a diverse student team (Zoe King (sophomore), Michelle Wong (junior), Sahil Sandhu (junior), and Sean Bissell (senior)) began been working under the supervision of the SSRI instructional team in empirical data collection. In partnership with Dr. Tom LeBlanc of the Duke Cancer Institute, this team has been investigating the facilitators and inhibitors of clinician utilization of electronic patient reported outcome (ePRO) data. Zoe King, a sophomore on the project, explains here how this experience has informed her educational and professional trajectory.


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