Breaking It Down: Civic Ed Research

Research: the word heard ‘round the world by college freshmen. When I began my first year at the University of Florida (UF), it seemed that everyone who was anyone was doing research. In fact, my first course syllabi were filled with research proposals, papers, and panels with experienced undergraduate researchers.

After clinging to my qualitative research comfort zone for three years, augmented by an unexpected detour researching plants for the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, I began my undergraduate economics thesis this past fall. Though I initially struggled to select a topic, I finally settled on analyzing the ways in which specific state-level education factors and policies—such as per pupil spending, civic education requirements, and the socioeconomic status of students—correlate with young voter turnout rates. Using data from the US Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics and conducting simple linear regressions to test for correlation, I was able to conclude that there is a positive correlation between a more rigorous civic education requirement and higher young voter turnout. This is consistent with findings from other studies1 and, although I gained technical knowledge regarding the factors influencing civic education in the process, even more meaningful were the general takeaways about how to do research that will further my future academic endeavors.

  1. It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be ethical. A researcher’s dream is for their data to come alive and tell a compelling (and publishable) story, but this is not always a realistic expectation. Examples abound of young researches falsifying data in order to support revolutionary discoveries. A key example is Dutch psychology professor Diederik Stapel, who committed fraud at the great expense of the 20 Ph.D. candidates he supervised, many of whom were writing dissertations based on his fabricated data.2 With the newest research frequently building off of previous studies, dishonesty sets the academic community behind when, in fact, there is a great deal of value in discovering what we don’t know. Even when results are insignificant, they lead to the essential question, “What’s next?”
  2. This leads me to the next lesson: there is always more to learn. Even before my freshman year, when I applied for the merit based scholarship I receive from UF, I was asked to pose a question for future research. The research I proposed, remarkably similar to my thesis topic, was to explore the factors that motivate an individual to vote. But it was not until I sat down to write this blog post that I realized this intellectual progression. In all honesty, this is a problem that I will likely never stop pondering, but I am excited to now have the tools to continue my search from an academic perspective, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Because I challenged myself to write an economics thesis, I was able to come to the conclusion that qualitative research is just as important as quantitative research. The two are codependent and, without the initial qualitative research I conducted to identify meaningful independent variables, my research would not have had a firm basis. To be sure, more rigorous qualitative research will be an essential part of my “What’s next?”
  3. Here is a lesson that every young person needs to learn: Correlation does not imply causation. Just because a regression analysis identifies a link between a dependent and independent variable—in my case strict civic education requirements and increased young voter turnout—it does not necessarily mean that one was caused by the other. There may be other factors at play. My favorite illustrations of this are the countless comedic graphs that can be found on the internet depicting correlation between factors that are most certainly not causal (e.g., negative correlation between margarine consumption and the divorce rate in Maine or positive correlation between the number of engineering doctorates awarded and mozzarella cheese consumption).3 Many graduate schools offer entire courses dedicated solely to causal inference in quantitative research, so it is safe to say that I am still working on this one.
  4. Which brings me to my last takeaway: Never be afraid to ask for help. You do not need a Ph.D. to have a fulfilling research experience, especially if you have the right people on your team. Whether you need help accessing data, running your first regression, or regrouping entirely, your research will only be enhanced by a pair of fresh eyes and a new perspective. 

“Thanks, Christina. This is really helpful, but what about civic education?” Great question. I am just not sure. We still have a lot of work to do, both in discovering new techniques and researching their effectiveness. Data showing younger voters turn out at lower rates are crystal clear4, and we as a society need to mobilize to find a solution. And voting, while serving as a good measure of civic participation, only scratches the surface of what it truly means to be an engaged and active citizen.



About the Author:

Christina Wiley, a virtual intern at iCivics, is a senior studying political science and economics at the University of Florida. A self proclaimed civic education advocate since the age of 14, she strives to serve as an example to peers by bettering the student experience at UF as Chancellor of the Student Honor Code Administration and promoting civic engagement through the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. Christina spends all of her spare moments volunteering for Florida YMCA Youth In Government and keeping ahead of her class readings, literally one page at a time.





Sources:

  1. "High School Civic Education Linked to Voting Participation and Political Knowledge, No Effect on Partisanship or Candidate Selection." CIRCLE. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. http://civicyouth.org/high-school-civic-education-linked-to-voting-participation-and-political-knowledge-no-effect-on-partisanship-or-candidate-selection/.
  2. Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit. "The Mind of a Con Man." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/magazine/diederik-stapels-audacious-academic-fraud.html?pagewanted=all.
  3. Vigen, Tyler. Spurious Correlations. Spurious Media LLC, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations.
  4. File, Thom. “Young-Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964-2012.” The United States Census Bureau, Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.  https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p20-573.pdf.