University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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UW-Eau Claire Students Gain
Improved Access to ICPSR Data

 MAILED:  March 12, 2004

EAU CLAIRE — University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students studying almost anything related to the social sciences, but particularly those in political science, will soon have another research tool available to them — one they should find they can easily use thanks to the work of assistant professor of political science Dr. Geoffrey Peterson and staff of the Teaching and Learning Technology Development Center and Computing and Network Services at UW-Eau Claire.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 16, in the Alumni Room of Davies Center, faculty and students are invited to the “unveiling” of a new database that has been customized to allow for easy access to datasets available through the university’s membership in the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Dr. James Oberly, professor of history, began the work of teaching other UW-Eau Claire faculty members how to use the many electronic datasets available through the ICPSR. Oberly had used electronic datasets in his research and teaching for more than 10 years, and he knew that other faculty members were interested in exploring their teaching and research possibilities as well. He received a spring 2003 Technology Innovation for Education Fellowship and began working with the TLTDC to design and conduct a series of workshops with faculty from the departments of mathematics, sociology, communication and journalism, history, political science, and economics.

Peterson was one of those faculty members, and he has taken this effort one step further. According to Peterson, the ICPSR archive of social data, although incredibly valuable, is now so vast that many of his students found it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to use. Not only did the students have trouble weeding out the information they wanted, they sometimes found they simply couldn’t get results when they tried to feed the raw data files into the statistical analysis program needed to make sense of the data. UW-Eau Claire students and faculty are licensed to use a program known as SPSS for statistical analysis, and some faculty members use the STATA program as well.

“I was spending sometimes 40 hours a week or more helping individual students to get the results they were looking for,” said Peterson. “It was a nightmare.”

But Peterson didn’t want to give up on helping his students to use the ICPSR datasets, he said, because he knew that if his undergraduates learned to use them, it would not only enrich their work at UW-Eau Claire, but give them a great advantage when they headed to graduate school or on to their professional lives.

Sometimes, he said, the problem was as simple as a one-word code change made in the syntax files of the SPSS program between the time the original datasets were added to the archive and the time the students tried to analyze them. Newer versions of SPSS simply weren’t compatible with some of the less recent raw number datasets, and even a one word change could take endless hours to detect and fix — something Peterson luckily understands how to do.

“I had worked with SPSS syntax files before working with Jim to some degree, but most of my learning has been on-the-fly learning over the past four years of formatting datasets,” he said.

Finally, Peterson decided that he needed to find a more efficient way to make this valuable research tool more accessible to his students. So after being granted his own summer 2003 TIE fellowship, Peterson chose about 175 datasets that he’d found particularly useful and relevant to his students and has worked with the TLTDC to make sure they are SPSS/STATA ready before using them, and to create a database to provide easier access to the datasets. The datasets include things such as public opinion surveys related to politics and social issues, census data, global economic data, prison population data, and more. For now, most of the datasets relate to political science, but Peterson expects that a greater variety of datasets will be added to the new database as students and faculty continue to define their needs.

Kathleen Finder, interim director of the TLTDC, said she believes “this resource will be extremely valuable for the campus” but pointed out that the university’s ICPSR license restricts use of these datasets to current faculty, staff and students, so the database and datasets will be password protected through BLUGOLD Insider.

“With easy access to ICPSR datasets like the ‘American National Election Study’ or the ‘Eurobarometer,’ any UW-Eau Claire student now has the exact same access as the leading scholars in the world,” Oberly said.

For more information, contact Geoff Peterson, (715) 836-3641 or petersgd@uwec.edu,
or Kathleen Finder, (715) 836-2654 or finderks@uwec.edu.

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Updated: March 12, 2004