‘Best Breakfast in Town’ Project Illustrates Political Science Research Methods

Steak 'n Shake award presentation

Who has the best breakfast in town? According to students in Assistant Professor Amanda Rosen’s Research Methods and Approaches in Political Science (POLT 2600) Spring 2012 class, that distinction goes to the Steak ‘n Shake at Watson and Elm.

POLT 2600 teaches students to understand and analyze political science research and to write like political scientists. Rosen’s Best Breakfast in Town (BBIT) exercise has become an important tool in accomplishing these goals.

choosing from the Steak 'n Shake menu

Rosen explained that the BBIT project came into being during her first semester at Webster University. As she was walking in the Old Orchard shopping center one day, she noticed a large “Best Breakfast in Town” sign in a restaurant window. The sight gave her pause.

“I have too much methodology training to accept that,” she said. “Who says so? What does that even mean, the ‘best breakfast in town’? I posed that question to my undergraduates, and I ended up using it as a theme for several homeworks in the class. It just kind of grew into this whole project.”

The BBIT project has been so successful in teaching political science methodology, in fact, that Rosen shared it with other political scientists via a poster presentation at the 2010 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Boston.

Students are survey designers as well as researchers.

The BBIT segment allows students to be survey designers as well as researchers, Rosen said. “As they’re learning the tools that political scientists use, they’re applying it to BBIT, and they have class exercises and homeworks that are themed around that.”

Server Lauren Weis and Assistatn Professor Amanda Rosen

Rosen said students are asked to deconstruct the term “Best Breakfast in Town” early in the project. The class is divided into three groups, and each group is given a word— “best,” “breakfast,” or “town”—and asked to set boundaries for it. For example, students who have the word “breakfast” need to decide what food and drink items must be on a menu in order for a restaurant to be part of the sample. Another parameter to be determined was time of day. Is breakfast still breakfast if it’s eaten at 11 p.m.?

“In research methods, you have to develop variables and measures,” Rosen explained. “Here we have a variable. Breakfast can vary, and we have to figure out how to measure it.”

Once boundaries are set for the BBIT project, the class discusses survey research and how to write a good survey. Then they get to work writing their BBIT survey. “All of the things you have to deal with in political surveys, you have to apply here,” Rosen said.

Breakfasting–and gathering data–at local restaurants

With surveys in hand, the students become researchers by eating breakfast—and gathering data—at one or two of the restaurants that met project criteria. This year’s class decided that restaurants had to be within the 63119 ZIP Code to be part of the sample.

Rosen helps students organize data so they can complete their final projects: two-part papers that are presented on the second-to-last day of class. In the first part of their papers, students make a case for a particular restaurant based on the data collected and analyzed during the semester. In the second part, they critique their BBIT research process and decide, as if they were journal editors, whether the class’s research should be accepted, revised and resubmitted, or rejected.

Steak 'n Shake's "country skillet"

On the final day of the Spring 2012 class, the students and their professor breakfasted at Steak ‘n Shake, the winner of the BBIT exercise. Students’ breakfast choices included “skillets,” egg sandwiches, pancakes, and pastries.

Sophomore Yoanna Todorova was happy with her choice of chocolate chip pancakes. “I liked it,” the native of Bulgaria said, adding that she didn’t eat breakfast out very often. “I usually eat at home. An American breakfast is too heavy for me.”

Junior Jane McKibben, who breakfasted at Steak ‘n Shake during the BBIT data-collection period, was pleased that the popular restaurant chain received BBIT honors. In addition to Steak ‘n Shake’s good food, “The service is good, and the price is amazing,” she said.

Freeing students to “dig into the process”

While sipping tea during the class’s Steak ‘n Shake excursion, Rosen discussed the benefits of the BBIT project. “It frees students up from understanding the literature,” she said. “They can really just dig into the process.

“The project’s kind of neat because it’s both group and individual,” she added. “They work in groups on certain aspects and have to come to a consensus as a research team. But they’re also analyzing and carrying out data as individuals.

“BBIT allows students to see that even a question as mundane as ‘Where should I go for breakfast?’ can be answered through method. It really helps them see that this method stuff applies to their real lives, not just their coursework.”