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HGNI Community Outreach Study Results

Priming a Sense of Place Increases Attendance

To get residents to attend housing fairs, give them a personal invitation that emphasizes their connection to the neighborhood.

How can community organizations increase attendance at housing fairs?

In the wake of the foreclosure crisis, the city of Milwaukee and other groups have designed programs to stabilize distressed neighborhoods and improve the appearance and safety of Milwaukee's housing stock. Many of these programs remain underutilized, and greater community outreach is needed. Four field experiments were conducted between February and August 2014 in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood to test the impact of the Harambee Great Neighborhood Initiative’s (HGNI) community outreach efforts. 

In Study 1, 212 homeowners were randomly assigned with equal probability to receive a postcard invitation to attend a community meeting. Postcards for half the sample included the text: “need help with your home?” while the other half primed a sense of place with: “want to help your community?” In Study 2, residents were randomly assigned to a control group (no contact, 842 residents) or to receive a visit from an HGNI organizer (240 residents). In Study 3, 1,550 homeowners were randomly assigned with equal probability to a control group (no letter), to receive a standard letter inviting them to a housing fair, or to receive an otherwise similar letter that also emphasized their connection to the community and thanked them for their efforts to make the neighborhood a better place to live. Study 4 replicated Study 3 among a different set of homeowners (630 in total). 


Study 1: Postcards that primed a sense of community led to higher meeting attendance than the postcards that did not (2.3 % turnout vs. <1% turnout).

Study 2: There was no discernible treatment effect for the door-knocking experiment. However, contacts were attempted during the workweek and few homeowners in the neighborhood were successfully contacted.

Study 3: Homeowners who received a letter were significantly more likely to attend the housing fair (4.9% turnout vs 0% in control group). The form of letter (primed sense of community or not) did not have any impact on attendance rates.

Study 4: Homeowners who received letters were significantly more likely to attend the housing fair (2.5% turnout vs. <1% turnout in control group). However, the letter that primed a sense of community had the largest impact (3.2% turnout vs. 1.8% turnout for the standard letter group)


  • Personal invitations can increase attendance at housing fairs. Estimated treatment effects ranged from a 2.5-5 percentage point difference in attendance.
  • Priming a sense of community attachment among homeowners generally resulted in the largest increases in attendance.

Authors: Amber Wichowsky and Dan Matthews

Suggested Citation: MDL Policy Brief. 2014. “Community Outreach around Housing” Milwaukee, WI: The Marquette Democracy Lab Project.

STEMhero Study Results

This study has since been published at Elementary Studies Journal.

Real Data Makes STEM Relevant to Students

To engage students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses, leverage data from students’ own lives.

How can teachers best engage all their students in STEM coursework?

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related occupations are an important and growing part of the U.S. economy. Yet student interest is lower than what it needs to be: the Department of Commerce estimates there will be more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM positions in the US by 2018. Student interest in STEM subjects is also marked by substantial gender gaps; girls report less interest in STEM than boys, and as adults, women remain vastly underrepresented in STEM-related fields. Prior research suggests that teaching styles focused on collaboration, projects inspired by real-world problems, and interdisciplinary connections can increase student engagement in STEM learning, particularly for girls.

STEMhero is a web application with accompanying curriculum materials that aims to put these insights into practice. Designed to use real-world challenges to inspire student engagement in STEM, the program follows four steps:

1) Students identify and learn how to read water, gas, and/or electric meters at their home and/or school;

2) Students record meter readings, measuring utility consumption over time;

3) Students learn about a range of efficiency behaviors and technologies that can affect utility consumption; and

4) Students implement an efficiency behavior and/or technology of their choice, measuring its effect on utility consumption.

In this study, we test whether STEMhero’s real-world classroom program, in which students act as “citizen scientists” to reduce water and energy consumption, increases interest in STEM subjects. We also test whether the program closes the gender gap in STEM interest. Finally, we consider whether such an experiential, project and problem-based approach, also increases civic engagement by making students and their communities the center of the learning process. 

Thirteen schools (551 students) were recruited for the Spring 2015 impact study of STEMhero and randomly assigned to control and treatment groups. Both treatment and control schools received a pre-treatment survey to gauge baseline student interest. During the two-week study period, seven treatment schools integrated STEMhero into regular class instruction, while six control schools maintained their standard classroom activities. All students in the treatment schools were asked to use STEMhero to complete several short classroom assignments. These required approximately 50-60 minutes of total class time over the two weeks. At the end of the two-week unit, researchers administered a post-treatment survey to all students to test whether treatment schools saw increases in: (1) interest in future STEM study; (2) overall engagement in STEM coursework; and (3) civic engagement. Students in the control schools were also given the option to implement the STEMhero curriculum, but only after survey data had been collected.


STEMhero had a significant impact on two of three key outcomes:

(1) Interest in taking science/math classes: Students who used STEMhero expressed more interest in taking math and science classes in the future. Additionally, STEMhero passed the “placebo test:” the program did not move interest in other (non-related) subjects like music and history. The program worked equally well for boys and girls, so there was no statistically significant evidence that the program closed the gender gap in STEM interest. 

(2) Overall engagement in science/math: STEMhero did not have a discernible impact on the extent to which students found science and math useful, interesting or enjoyable; nor did the program increase students’ perceived abilities in these subjects. These null results may reflect the difficulty in moving such perceptions over a very short two-week timeframe.

(3) Civic engagement: Students who used STEMhero were more likely to agree that they can work with others to improve their communities and that their environmental efforts can make a difference. 


  • Using data relevant to students’ own lives can increase students’ persistence in STEM study.
  • “Citizen Science” activities can increase students’ sense of collective efficacy -- their perception that they can work with others to solve community problems, such as water scarcity.

Authors: Amber Wichowsky, Dan Matthews and Meghan Condon

Suggested Citation: MDL Policy Brief. 2016. “How to engage students in STEM subjects? Use data from their own lives.” Milwaukee, WI: The Marquette Democracy Lab Project.

Neighborhood of Neighborhoods Mobilization Study

Community organizations can boost civic engagement

To get residents to attend community meetings, organizations should send them a personal invitation.


How to increase attendance at the Neighborhood of Neighborhoods (NeON) meetings?


The Neighborhood of Neighborhoods (NeON) meeting is held monthly, and is open to all residents living in the Near West Side.

In Study 1, 410 homeowners and 6,478 renters were randomly assigned with equal probability to a control group or to receive a postcard invitation to the NeON meeting. In Study 2, 350 residents, who had previously provided their phone numbers to NWSP, were randomly assigned with equal probability to a control group or to receive a text message invitation. In Study 3, 367 residents, who had previously provided their phone numbers to NWSP, were randomly assigned with equal probability to one of three groups: (1) phone call invitation, (2) text message invitation and (3) control group, no invitation.


Postcards (Study 1): Postcards increased meeting attendance among both renters and homeowners. The bump in turnout was small (less than one percentage point increase in NeON attendance), but statistically significant.

Text messages (Study 2): Attendance was higher in the treatment group (~2%) than in the control group (<1%), but this difference is not statistically significant. However, half of the text messages sent were not received, either because the number was no longer active, or the resident had blocked receiving bulk, marketing messages. Taking this into account, the text message invitation increased NeON attendance by about 2 percentage points

Phone call or Text message (Study 3): Outreach increased attendance at the NeON meeting, but there was no statistically significant difference between whether that message was delivered personally over the phone or impersonally via text message. Attendance was higher in the phone call (6.2 percentage point increase, p<0.05) and text message (4.5 percentage point increase, p=0.12) groups compared to the control group.


  • Personal invitations can increase attendance at NeON meetings.
  • The bumps range from 1 to 2 percentage points at the low end to 5 to 6 percentage points at the high end.
  • Text messages are a much more cost-effective outreach method compared to postcards and are as effective as a personal phone call invitation.

Author: Amber Wichowsky

Suggested Citation: MDL Policy Brief. 2016. “How to get residents to community meetings? Just ask.” Milwaukee, WI: The Marquette Democracy Lab Project.

Near West Side Resident Survey

Read the findings from our 2017 survey of Near West Side residents.