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Evan Smith




Using Class Presentations to Examine Science and Policy

Evan Smith, Associate Professor of Psychology, Elizabethtown College
Teaching Resource Prize Winner

As conversations about systemic racism and reproductive rights have become central to U.S. politics, an increasing number of students are aware of the ways in which policies can produce glaring inequities. However, students often think about these issues in strictly political ways and are not aware of the role that social science can play in making positive change.  

I have designed an assignment for my undergraduate Child and Adolescent Development course to raise students’ awareness of a wide array of policies that impact human development (and can foster equity or inequity across groups), to see how these policies are informed by psychological research, and to introduce the role that professional psychological organizations such as SPSSI can play in advocating for policy change.

For this assignment, students work in groups on a social issue that has been the focus of an evidence brief or policy statement authored by a professional psychological organization (e.g., The Devastating and Long-term Consequences of Parent-Child Separations (SPSSI, 2018); Reducing Child Poverty Can Promote Children’s Development and Productivity in Adulthood (APA, 2021)). Students examine the policy statement, find and read a research study that was cited in the statement, and create a class presentation describing the organization’s research-based position. Students also create a persuasive flyer about the policy position that could be used to educate the general public. 

Students develop a better understanding of several key ideas through this assignment. Creating their own presentation and hearing the presentations of their classmates improves their basic understanding of human development. Students typically consider development to be a largely individual phenomenon and, when considering environmental influences, think only of the impact of the microsystems in which people engage (e.g., family, school, work). Bringing students’ attention to the developmental implications of policies broadens and deepens their understanding of the forces of development. By seeing 6 or 7 presentations, students become more aware of a wide array of influential policies that impact children and adolescents in the United States, and they learn that these policies sometimes differ across states or school districts. By reading policy statements created by different groups, they also learn more about the mission, goals, and advocacy of these psychological organizations. Finally, students gain an understanding of how social scientists can use research findings to spur the development of sound policy.

Developmental science can and should be used as a tool for social change. Highlighting the connection between social science research and public policy sparks excitement in many students. It inspires passion for science that can make a difference in the world and a sense of motivation and agency as they realize that they can harness scientific knowledge to contribute to positive change.

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