Professor incorporates community-based economic research
by Susan King
In a university setting, the objective of community-based research is twofold: to satisfy the client's need and to offer students real-life situations to study, where their conclusions can have an actual effect on the client's economic viability.
This type of research contributes to a problem or need identified by the community, and researchers, community members and students are seen as collaborators. All participants benefit from the research, which is disseminated through the media and at public settings and informal gatherings.
The measure of value is the usefulness of the results, and sometimes, publication.
Since 2008, students in Whitehead's classes have participated in community-based research through the university's Appalachian and Community Together Office, which links university classes with local nonprofit agencies.
Recent research subjects have included Mountain Home Music concert series, the annual 100-mile bike ride, Blood, Sweat and Gears and, most recently, the annual Valle Country Fair.
Whitehead and his students have conducted benefit cost analyses for the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, Appalachian's Parent to Parent Support Network, High Country Local First, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture and Watauga County Tourism Development Authority.
For each project, students estimate the demand for the service provided by the nonprofit agency, and then predict the impact of a price increase or a change in the characteristics of the agency's services or events.
Whitehead used data from a post-ride survey for Blood, Sweat and Gears. Beginning and ending at Valle Crucis Elementary School, the event can accommodate up to 1,760 combined participants for a 100-mile ride, a 50-mile ride, and two 20-mile rides.
Typically, the event has sold out, with the lion's share of net profits from the race donated to the American Red Cross.
Since the event is so popular, Whitehead proposed that BSG raise its entry fees based on the survey results. If participation was not hindered by the increase, the event would generate a greater profit for the designated charity.
BSG sponsors agreed to test the hypothesis and raised the registration fees from $60 to $70 in 2012.
The event sold out, with total net profits of $67,510. Of that total, BSG contributed $50,000 to the American Red Cross and the balance to volunteer fire departments, the Watauga County Sheriff's office, and other local agencies.
According to raw data collected in the Appalachian study by 2012 Appalachian graduate John Greeson, last year's event had a total estimated economic impact in excess of $1 million, compared with $900,000 in 2011.
Of course, it's up to the client whether or not to adopt the recommendations of the researchers. "There's always a good, natural tension between the philosophy of an economist and that of the non-profit agency," Whitehead said.
As part of their community-based research, Whitehead's students have also conducted a number of surveys with local non-profit agencies about the economic impacts of tourism in the High Country.
When asked about the most important things they had learned in the course of their research projects, Whitehead's students cited the real-life implications of the projects, working with a team towards a common goal, dealing with deadlines, hands-on experience versus reading in a textbook, and the opportunity to put classroom learning into action.
Whitehead said, "The greatest benefit to me in this method of teaching is seeing students use economics in a practical way, and the realization that what they are learning in the classroom can actually be useful."
Whitehead earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Centre College and a master's and Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. He is an associate editor at Marine Resource Economics and The Journal of Environmental Management, and a member of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, North American Association of Fisheries Economists, the American Economic Association and the Southern Economic Association.
Whitehead considers 2008 a banner year because he was presented with both the Distinguished Economist Award by the Kentucky Economic Association and the Player with the Best Attitude Award in the noon faculty-staff basketball game at Appalachian.
To learn more about Whitehead's teaching and research, visit john-whitehead.blogs.com.