The Solutions to Poverty Project


Amanda E. Barnett, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin-Stout

Julie A. Zaloudek, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin-Stout


Barnett, A. E., & Zaloudek, J. A. (2015). The solutions to poverty project. University of Wisconsin-Stout.


The Solutions to Poverty Project engages an entire class of undergraduate students in identifying causes of and developing potential solutions to reducing poverty that are supported by empirical research, and framed within a family resource management perspective and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. The overall goal is to increase students’ critical thinking about the topic of poverty and resource disparities so that they will be more informed professionals and citizens. The project is designed to assess the following DQP proficiencies: specialized knowledge, broad and integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic and global learning.

Background and Context

The Solutions to Poverty Project was designed for junior-level undergraduate Human Development Family Studies majors and minors in a Family Resource Management course. It is a semester-long project that works well with approximately 30 students (6 teams with 5 students in each team).

Others who might find this project useful include: (a) economists teaching about resource disparity at a micro or macro level, (b) social science instructors teaching about societal factors that impact the life courses of individuals, (c) any school of education preparing future teachers, and (d) social work instructors preparing students to work with children and families in the social welfare system.

Below is a description of how the project was designed to assess the following DQP proficiencies.

Specialized Knowledge

  • Investigates a familiar but complex problem in the field of study by assembling, arranging and reformulating ideas, concepts, designs and techniques.
  • Frames, clarifies and evaluates a complex challenge that bridges the field of study and one other field, using fields to produce independently or collaboratively an investigative, creative or practical work illuminating that challenge.
  • Constructs a summative project, paper, performance or application that draws on current research, scholarship and techniques in the field of study.

Students collaborate in teams to identify social problems related to poverty and develop real solutions that have the power to improve the lives of all individuals and families in the United States and beyond. Discussions and content integrate perspectives from the fields of family science, social work, economics, and political science. Students construct a final paper that summarizes their findings from research in the field and present these findings to the class in teams.

Broad and Integrative Knowledge

  • Defines and frames a problem important to the major field of study, justifies the significance of the challenge or problem in a wider societal context, explains how methods from the primary field of study and one or more core fields of study can be used to address the problem, and develops an approach that draws on both the major and core fields

The social problem of poverty is inherently interdisciplinary. The use of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory requires that students connect the issue to a wider societal context. Students are encouraged to locate the problems and solutions related to poverty within the Family Science field, but also within other fields of study as well (i.e., economics, history, education, information technology, etc.).

Intellectual Skills

Analytic Inquiry

  • Differentiates and evaluates theories and approaches to selected complex problems within the chosen field of study and at least one other field.

Use of Information Sources

  • Locates, evaluates, incorporates and properly cites multiple information resources in different media or different languages in projects, papers or performances.
  • Generates information through independent or collaborative inquiry and uses that information in a project, paper or performance.

Engaging Diverse Perspectives

  • Constructs a written project, laboratory report, exhibit, performance or community service design expressing an alternate cultural, political or technological vision and explains how this vision differs from current realities.

Communicative Fluency

  • Constructs sustained, coherent arguments, narratives or explications of issues, problems or technical issues and processes, in writing and at least one other medium, to general and specific audiences

Guided by Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory and Family Resource Management Model, students integrate empirical research on the specific problems/solutions to poverty that their team is focusing on for the semester. Students must demonstrate that their ideas are supported by research whether their solution already exists or is a completely new idea. Overall, students need to convince the reader that their proposed solution will help to reduce or eliminate poverty.

Civic and Global Learning

  • Collaborates with others in developing and implementing an approach to a civic issue, evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the process, and, where applicable, describes the result

The Solutions to Poverty Project is a course project and each team’s work is needed to really see the complexity of poverty. Students understand that we are all working together to complete this project, which really builds a strong community. They collaborate in teams to approach course assignments and the Solutions to Poverty Project. Teams develop their own ideas on a solution to poverty and decide how to move forward with the project (with some guidance of the instructor). Students assist each other with developing ideas for their individual papers, but further demonstrate collaboration with a final presentation.

Alignment and Scaffolding

The Solutions to Poverty Project was designed to better prepare students for their senior-level courses by focusing on the previously mentioned DQP proficiencies. Specifically, instructors of the senior-level courses reported a need for students to have additional practice with applying research to real-world problems, collaborating, and communicating effectively in written and oral formats before getting to their advanced courses. Students come to this course with basic-to-intermediate knowledge and skills in researching scholarly articles, APA citations and references, collaborating, writing, and presenting.

Within the course, the Solutions to Poverty Project was designed to scaffold assignments throughout the semester in order to gradually guide students toward the final project (paper and presentation). Below is a list and brief description of assignments that contribute to the project. The course calendar in the syllabus is also helpful in conceptualizing the structure/scaffolding of this semester-long project.

Phase One | Families and Poverty: Definitions and Causes (Weeks 1-3)

  1. Establish teams
  2. Readings, lecture, and discussion on income inequities as well as views or causes of poverty in the U.S.:
  • Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Seccombe, K. (2007). Families in poverty. In S. J. Ferguson (Ed.), Families in the 21st Century. New York: Pearson.
  • Ecological theory application: Problem construction
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International Encyclopedia of Education (volume 3, 2nd edition). Oxford: Elsevier.

Students work in teams and as an entire class to identify causes of poverty at each of the five systems of the ecological model: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem.

Phase Two | Families and Poverty: Solutions (Week 4-5)

  1. Ecological theory application: Finding solutions
  2. Students work in teams and as an entire class to identify solutions poverty at each of the five systems of the ecological model.
  3. Topic related to poverty chosen
  4. Students are provided a list of broad topics related to poverty that are guided by research and theory such as mental illness, domestic violence, education, and discrimination.
  5. Teams assigned an ecological system

Each team is randomly assigned an ecological system that they will be examining for specific causes and solutions to poverty related to that topic.

Teams select the solution to poverty they will be focusing on for the semester.

Phase Three | Critical Analysis of Resource Disparities through a FRM lens (Weeks 6-10)

  1. Activities connect five steps of FRM decision-making process to ecological theory:
  • Moore, T. J., & Asay, S. M. (2013). Family Resource Management (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Each week students read Moore and Asay (2013) chapters about a different step of the FRM decision-making process.
  • In-class activities are developed to engage students in critical discussions of how each step is related to the systems of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory.
  1.  Students gather, read and summarize research on their topic related to poverty.
  •  Students are required to locate, read, and summarize a research article on the topic related to poverty and their assigned ecological system for each of the weeks during this phase.
  1.  Activities connecting research articles to FRM process and ecological theory
  • In teams, students report on their research articles and engage in an activity/assignment that connects their research to the FRM topic for that week.
  • The instructor guides students on what types of articles to look for each week so that students obtain all required research articles for the project by the end of this phase.

Phase Four | Solutions to Poverty Project (Weeks 11-15)

  1. Writing intensive drafts and peer-reviews
  2. Team presentations and professional evaluation
  3. Class debriefing and conclusions


Instructor feedback. The assignment seems to have produced expected results. It has helped students take basic FRM concepts and use them to solve real-life challenges for low-income families. Most importantly, it has helped students shift perspectives on who or what is to blame for poverty and what solutions should be implemented in the United States and beyond. We are also pleased with the team work aspect of the assignment and the quality of team assignments and presentations.

Student feedback. Students seem to be most challenged by using peer-reviewed research articles to develop and support their ideas for the project. They can find great articles and read the articles, but then find it difficult to translate what they have read to support their proposed solutions to poverty. This often results in lower-quality papers, but not necessarily presentations. Students may benefit from more practice with writing on this topic throughout the semester.

Revisions. During the first semester, the project was assigned near the last third of the course. Given our experience of the assignment and student feedback from that semester, the project was revised to be assigned as a semester-long project. This revision helped immensely and students provided positive feedback about the semester-long experience of the project/course.

A second revision based on student feedback was to have students identify the solution their teams would focus on for the project at the beginning of the semester (phase two) rather than at the end (phase four). This will help students find more relevant research articles during phase three.

Finally, based on instructor observations and peer feedback, we desired to make the project even more relevant for students by having a professional from the field evaluate student presentations. This connects the project to the ‘real-world’ and makes the project more meaningful for students. We will be inviting one professional from the field that works with families in poverty to meet with students at the beginning of the project as well as at the end to evaluate student presentations. Another possibility would be to include several professionals who may give formative feedback to students throughout the project, but this may be more time than most professionals can offer.


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