What do young people in a purple state think about religion and politics?
Amy Erica Smith, assistant professor of political science, and her Political Science 370 (Religion and Politics) class uncovered some intriguing answers in their Cyclone Religion and Politics Survey, published this May.
This is the first time Smith, an expert in survey data and research, has published the results of the survey, which started as an informal course exercise two years ago.
"I use a lot of materials in the classroom that involve surveys of the American population, and a couple of years ago, I thought, ‘Let’s have the students actually practice developing social science research by thinking about how they would study these same topics if they wanted to study them in their own backyard,’" she said.
This year Smith obtained Institutional Review Board approval to make the research results public, and 1,193 responses were collected.
Sent out a month after the Iowa caucuses, the survey covers a wide range of topics, from students’ preferred 2016 presidential candidates to beliefs about evolution, religious tolerance, discrimination on campus and separation of church and state.
Smith’s class had the opportunity to see the value of social science research by taking on some of its basic challenges, such as how to write an effective survey question.
"One of the keys of survey questions is to keep it simple, simple, simple," Smith said. "The students’ questions go through several iterations, and they do a lot of honing and simplifying to make it relevant and easy for people to answer."
College students are an intriguing demographic to survey, Smith said.
"This is their first time away from their families, for most people, and they are starting to define and redefine their opinions for themselves," she said. "Studying young adults also gives some sense of what the future might hold. You can start to have a sense of what the future of Iowa is by looking at this age group, although their opinions will also change to some extent over their lifetime just by the maturation process."
While the majority of Americans still identify as religious, one harbinger of the future indicated in the survey is the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, Smith said. Of students surveyed, 39.2% identified as non-religious.
Other points of interest she noted were the willingness of students to admit their lack of participation in the primary process, the high level of interest from marginalized groups in having safe spaces on campus and attitudes toward evolution and intelligent design.
"That data can be spun in two ways," she said. "One is 85% of our students believe in evolution, and the other is 15% of our students don’t believe in evolution. I haven’t decided which is the appropriate interpretation. At the Iowa State University of Science and Technology, is it good that 85% of our students believe in evolution or bad that 15% don’t?”
One thing is clear: after the opportunity to conduct undergraduate social science research, her students may never view a political poll the same way again.
"It provided students an opportunity to practice and implement things they’ve been learning about in a real-world setting, bringing it down to a local level and learning about their peers."
Nearly 70% of Iowa State students surveyed reported they are "very likely" to vote in November’s general election. For more insights into student views, read the survey, available on Smith’s website.