Students in the College of Liberal Arts are blurring the boundary between undergraduate and graduate student, between class room assignment and research that could make a difference in the world around them, and perhaps even strengthening democracy in the process.
Students who are working to blend those elements have enlisted in the Project for Equity, Representation, and Governance (PERG).
PERG is a Texas A&M University research program in which undergraduate and graduate students work alongside faculty members to perform studies related to various public policy concerns, often with a focus on educational inequalities.
“Without an educated population, democracy is just a very fragile institution,” said Kenneth Meier, distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science. “Indeed, major disparities in education are a problem. My philosophy has always been that the purpose of public education is to create effective democratic citizens. Are they economically successful? Do they generate a culture that is inclusive? Do they lower the level of crime? Do they increase the social commitments, the social capital? Those are all hard things to make sure of.”
Beyond the program’s goals to create the best experience possible for its undergraduate students, PERG works toward providing the most reliable research to inform political decision-making.
“We’re interested in the political process, and we’re interested in how decision making in democracy effects policy, which effects people,” said Meier. “We know a lot about how to improve the quality of education, how to manage schools, how to deal with health care issues, and we generate publications on that and other things to try to inform policy makers when they are making decisions.”
One of the major topics around which much of the program’s research is focused is education, how it is organized and how differences in quality affect different groups of people.
In the end, the research conducted by PERG and other programs like it only play a part in changing public policy.
“We’re not politicians,” said Meier. “Our job is to see if we can find knowledge that can be applied and let people know about it. Sometimes they choose to use the knowledge, sometimes they don’t.”
When it comes to selecting which undergraduate students the program will accept, PERG only takes those students who show great potential.
“The undergraduate program is designed to grab people who are bright and see how bright they really are,” said Meier. “It’s a high intensity program that just says, ‘OK, this is how you get A’s at A&M. Now let’s see if you can do even better than that.’”
Once they are accepted into the program, each undergraduate gets assigned to a few current research projects that explore topics such as school boards, nursing homes, hospitals, or higher education. Working closely with a faculty member or advanced graduate student, the undergraduates collect data, perform literature reviews, and build data sets.
Eventually, once the student has progressed enough, they are encouraged to find a topic that interests them and produce a paper based on their research.
“Sometimes it’s an honors thesis, sometimes it’s something else, but they’re going to do a research paper, and they’re going to do a good research paper,” said Meier. “They do, in many cases, some very sophisticated stuff. We sort of think of them as mini graduate students. I would match our undergraduate research assistants against those from Harvard.”
Polly Calderon, a recent graduate with dual majors in political science and sociology, began working with PERG as an undergraduate research assistant the summer before her senior year, and will soon be joining the program as a graduate student.
“It was a really good experience just to see the kind of projects that are going on that sometimes you don’t know about because you’re focused on just taking classes or what’s going on in trying to graduate,” said Calderon. “It gave me a good overview of what grad school could be like, so it was a good stepping stone to understanding the projects you could be working on.”