April 19, 2017, BY Samantha Wallace

Bucknell students and faculty work at the new Bucknell Institute for Public Policy Survey Center.
Professor Chris Ellis, political science, and Will Bordash '18 discuss recent survey analysis at the new Bucknell Institute for Public Policy Survey Center.

It's easy to survey a group of people on whether or not they believe the U.S. economy is doing well, but it's harder to find out why they have that opinion.

How to develop questions that will yield insightful information -- and what that information can tell us about broader social trends -- is the goal of the newly established Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) Survey Center. The center conducted its first survey last summer and in the fall semester, Brayden Zimmerman '20 and Will Bordash '18 joined the program as interns.

An idea to support more undergraduate research opportunities and faculty scholarship in social sciences had been in the works for some time, said Amy Wolaver, professor of economics and director of BIPP. "This is a resource both groups can use," she said.

It's also becoming increasingly common for universities to offer survey and polling services, added Wolaver, who saw the potential for such a service at Bucknell.

The court of public opinion
The center avoids surveys for "topics that are saturated, like political polling of candidates," Wolaver said. "Instead, we're focused on general social science: public opinion on policy issues, or why certain voters approve or disapprove of a certain issue."

Social sciences -- everything from anthropology to economics, political science and sociology -- lean heavily on information that comes from collecting and analyzing data. But it's not as simple as asking yes-or-no questions, explained Professor Chris Ellis, political science.

"Public opinion and survey research takes a complex, messy issue and what people might be thinking about it, and figures out not only what kind of questions they respond to on that topic, but also how to design those questions so that they give us the most useful information," said Ellis, who heads the survey center. "Some of these issues are vague, ambiguous ideas -- and we have to use our analytic skills to pinpoint the most relevant information about them."

Getting started
The first survey conducted by the center and YouGov, a market research company, of 1,200 adults took place last summer, when the presidential race was at its height and social science questions were front and center. Specifically, the survey asked participants how optimistic they felt about the U.S. economy, but also collected data on things like the race, age, gender, ideology and party affiliation of those who responded.

For Bordash, who majors in biology, and Zimmerman, who majors in math and political science, their role has been "digging into the raw data and finding questions to analyze," Ellis said, which has resulted in a wealth of information. The two have been responsible for writing bi-weekly reports on the findings of the survey that are published on the center's blog, which so far have included "Perceptions of Economic Fairness," "2016 Presidential Election and Economic Optimism," and "Party Identification, Ideology and Economic Optimism."

Zimmerman says analyzing and then writing about the data is a process he enjoys, and one that allows him to use aspects of both of his majors.

"As a math and political science double major, this work fits perfectly into both," he said. "I apply the skills I'm learning when I analyze the data and then write up the findings."

"This idea of 'big data' has been a part of public policy for a long time, but now fields like marketing, public service and even the financial sector are looking to use it to their advantage," Ellis said. "The skill set is transferrable, so even though the surveys are public policy-focused, students from a wide range of disciplines can take away valuable experiences from the internship."

Looking ahead
This summer, student research fellows will take a more hands-on role by participating in the preparation of the next survey, which will focus on the politics of higher education, Ellis said. Students will take part in everything from archival research to conducting interviews and leading focus groups. Beginning this fall, student interns will take on the roles of reviewing, compiling and analyzing data, and writing reports.

The fall semester also will see the debut of new courses on topics like public opinion and survey research, according to Ellis. It's part of the process of building the survey center into a lasting resource for Bucknell students and faculty, Wolaver noted, with the short-term goal of undertaking one survey per academic year.

Zimmerman believes that working at the center is an experience that can help students with a variety of career plans, and working closely with Ellis and Wolaver was a major factor in how much he enjoyed it.

"It serves as a place where I can combine my seemingly different skill sets and interests into one position," he said. "Not many students get the opportunity to apply all of their interests at once under the guidance of two professors."

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