Social science researchers partner with Illinois town on civic challenge

Molly Ronsick worries about what the future holds for her hometown of Okawville, Ill. It has a new school and small-town charm, but young families aren’t moving in, and the community is graying.

In response, the downstate Illinois town of 1,400 residents is partnering with the University of Chicago’s CivX program to shape what’s ahead for a community in flux. A six-member team is spending this week in Okawville in the program’s largest project to date.

Launched two years ago, CivX matches research training in the University’s Division of the Social Sciences with civic institutions or government entities that are confronting a challenge. Graduate students use a process known as a design sprint to research a problem, design solutions and run validation studies to test them.

The approach produces insights and solutions on which the program’s civic partners can act. For UChicago students, the project is an opportunity to use research and analytical skills in a new and dynamic setting. The field work can deepen their academic research by providing added perspective.

“CivX puts our students in the field in a unique collaboration that augments academic training, provides leadership opportunities and explores career paths. At the same time, we’re helping community members gain insight and possible answers to a civic issue they are confronting,” said David Nirenberg, dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought.

Teaming up with CivX is Making History Work, a UChicago pilot program that’s part of the Career Diversity for Historians initiative sponsored by the American Historical Association and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Doctoral students in the University’s history department are taking part in the CivX project and producing an oral history of Okawville that will be shared with the community and made into a podcast

While a CivX team is on-site for five days, their work provides the equivalent of having a full-time employee focused on a single problem for three months. Program organizers team up with a civic partner ahead of the design sprint to define a very specific problem that the partner does not have the capacity to address.


“We provide UChicago students with intense, project-based experience on emerging urban issues, and enable our partners to clarify their choices and accelerate their decision-making,” said Will Gossin, assistant dean of students for the Division of the Social Sciences. “We’re very careful not to claim to solve ‘whole’ problems in five days. Instead we’re enabling civic organizations to get an outside look at something that’s been holding them back.”


CivX contributes to UChicago Urban, a University-wide commitment to understand urban issues and create a positive impact on the lives of people in cities. While Okawville is a small town, its challenges are rooted in the same issues of urbanization seen locally and globally, Gossin said.


CivX’s earlier projects include YearUp Chicago, a national education and workforce nonprofit; and Centre for Civil Society, a think tank in India.


For YearUp, the CivX team identified bottlenecks in recruitment of students for the program, which works with young adults to gain access to higher education and careers. The team created and tested two prototype solutions, and both were implemented by YearUp—first in Chicago and then across the country.


"Our ideal project focuses on what I call the service graph, or the service layer of society—the network of paths that individuals take as they navigate nonprofit, business and government services to address their needs and live a full life,” Gossin said.


For Okawville, CivX has assembled a team of three graduate students and three doctoral students. Their work includes assessing existing community resources and understanding what young families want out of where they call home.


Ronsick is excited the team has arrived after months of preparation. She has been looking for help in developing strategies for Okawville since returning to her hometown to raise a family.


“We want younger families moving to town. CivX is going to give us the tools and steps,” she said.