Contributing to the Community from inside the Classroom

Teachers make the world better every day by helping students grow and learn. We teach our students valuable skills, show them new perspectives on the world, and mentor them as they face the variety life’s opportunities and challenges. And we get to share some of the glory when these students go on to do amazing things after they leave our classrooms. This spring I came across two new classes at Yale where students and faculty worked together to make an immediate positive impact on the external community.

The first class was Dean Karlan’s Effective Philanthropy: Evaluating Charitable Organizations (ECON 472). Here’s how Dean describes the class in his syllabus:

This course will take a hands-on approach to being an effective philanthropist. We will study both the analytical and academic issues behind what constitutes evidence on aid effectiveness and how to decide what causes to support, as well as practical question about how to evaluate specific charities and philosophical questions about why we give, or ought to give. The class will blend both the abstract, reading and analyzing evidence on specific interventions or programs, to the applied, in thinking through how to translate the evidence to philanthropic decisions. During the course of the semester, the students, collaboratively with each other and the professor, will produce three outputs: (1) a jointly constructed criteria and process for evaluating charities, (2) evaluations of specific charities with an eye towards recommending to outside philanthropists and donors the findings from the course, and (3) a plan for how to build an ongoing organization or center that puts forwards such evaluation in the future.

As part of the class, the students will also allocate $50,000, donated by the Once Upon a Time Foundation, to the charity or charities they choose, and will make recommendations to Innovations for Poverty Action for how to allocate about $100,000 in funds donated to its Proven Impact Fund.

At the end of the semester, after carefully analyzing many charities around the world, the students chose to donate their $50,000 to Trickle Up. This NGO has been very successful at helping some of the world’s poorest people take their first steps out of poverty, and at the same time has run a very lean organization: 81% of all donations go directly to poverty alleviation programs. At some point Dean and his students may even publish their report on the criteria and process they used to do their evaluation. This might end up being a bigger contribution to the community than their $50,000 donation.

The second class with a direct impact I noticed was Elihu Rubin’s Infrastructure: Politics and Design (ARCH 347, PLSC 250), recently profiled in the Yale News. The primary goal of the seminar was to give students an understanding and appreciation for how big infrastructure such as bridges, sewer systems, and power plants come to be. During the semester, students worked together to create an eye-opening multimedia People’s Guide to Infrastructure in New Haven that describes the history and social implications of the transportation, water and waste, energy, parks and public space, and telecommunications systems in and around the city. The web site they have created also has several places for members of the community to contribute their unique perspectives to the guide.

Instead of writing papers that will usually be read once and cast aside at the end of the semester, students in these classes knew they were having a direct impact on the community. That drove them to engage more with the material, work harder, and learn more in the class. This in turn improved the quality of the final product. I find this idea of building things with external value in the classroom truly inspiring, and will now be looking at ways to incorporate it in my classes.