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Social work students try to find information for local agencies

By Sally Jongsma

The Sioux Center Community Hospital and Health Center, the Family Crisis Center, and ATLAS (a faith-based agency that helps people who are hurting) know more about their clientele than they did four months ago. And students in Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd's social research class know more about conducting surveys and gathering information that might be helpful to social service agencies.

Learning how to conduct research took a more practical focus this year for students in Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd's social research class.

Learning how to conduct research took a more practical focus this year for students in Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd's social research class.

"What do BSW students really need to know about research?" Vanderwoerd asked himself this summer as he prepared to revise the course he's taught several times before. His answer helped reshape the class. He decided that his students needed a basis from which to do very practical research for an agency they might work for, first of all. Secondly, they should be able to read and interpret other people's research. Vanderwoerd was also hoping to incorporate service learning into his class.

"I've wanted to use service-learning for some time," he says, but because he was completing his Ph.D. during the last several summers and didn't have time to initiate and set up contacts with local agencies, he taught the course from a more academic angle.

"Before, students came up with a research proposal and did all the planning for a valid research project, but it was hypothetical, with an emphasis on researching the literature and understanding the steps in the process," says Vanderwoerd. He's come to believe that such an emphasis is more appropriate in graduate research courses. What his students need is research experience that prepares entry-level social workers for obtaining the kind of concrete and immediate information most social service agencies need.

"In reality, most agencies are interested in what will help them accomplish their immediate goals. They usually don't have the time, resources, or personnel to search the literature and do more in-depth research. " Vanderwoerd says.

So this year, students are learning to conduct and compile the kind of research that agencies are interested in. One group of students is working with the hospital to help them better determine the needs of 18 - 44-year-old women in the area. The hospital is trying to assess the services it offers as well as find out how women feel about having a woman physician.

For the Family Crisis Center, students are trying to determine how aware college age people are of sexual abuse and domestic violence services. The Center finds that, despite known incidences of date and acquaintance rape, few of their clients are of college age.

The third group of students is trying to determine what difference it makes that ATLAS is overtly Christian in its approach to clients. Atlas tries to fill in the gaps left by other social service organizations by connecting clients to people or organizations that can help them.

Becky Hinderks of Sioux Center believes that what students are learning in research class and through the project will give them the tools to be better social workers.

Deb Schippers from Holland, Michigan, says she learned that how you design the survey makes a big difference. They not only needed to make sure they obtained the right information, but also to figure out how to do it in a feasible way.

"One of the things I have learned about the process is that things will happen that will make it difficult for you to conduct your survey," says Daniella Beukema from Tacoma, Washington. "You just have to find a way around it, if possible, and see if there are other ways that you can obtain the necessary information. If not, you just have to proceed with your study and hope that it will still be beneficial."

Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd helped guide his students through the process of designing a research project, conducting surveys, and compiling the results they received.

Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd helped guide his students through the process of designing a research project, conducting surveys, and compiling the results they received.

As important, Beukema says, she learned how to analyze other studies to see whether they are actually accurate or whether there is key information missing that would be relevant to the study and make other findings false.

Fitting all of the work into a semester was a stretch for the students, the agencies, and Vanderwoerd. "You don't do service learning projects to make your life easier," he says. He started assigning the groups on day one so they could get started immediately. The many stages of the process take time. In addition to setting up the study and developing the survey, students needed to get their study approved by the Dordt College Institutional Review Board, a committee that must assess and approve and research projects done by members of the Dordt College community.

Posting mailings and waiting for responses also takes time-more than the students expected By the end of the semester the three groups had to scramble to pull together the information from their surveys so that they could compile a written report of their findings and present it to the agencies during exam week.

Some groups ended up with more information than others. The group that conducted research for the Family Crisis Center on college-aged students' awareness of date rape and domestic violence services compiled a report based on questions such as "Have you ever been willingly groped?" "Have you been subjected to sexual harassment?" Have you been subjected to sexual abuse?" and "Are you aware of the services of the Family Crisis Center?"

Armed with the information provided them by the students, the Family Crisis Center can now decide how to use the results of the surveys in their programming.

Students learned much more than the logistics of designing surveys and crunching numbers, says Vanderwoerd. They learned that it is difficult to connect with people who have busy schedules and that getting responses isn't as easy as sending our questionnaires.

Despite the challenges, student appreciated the focus of the course and felt that they ended the semester with some concrete tools they could take with them as the begin looking for positions as social workers.