Bridging Learning and Doing: Evaluating for the Greater Good

By: Erin Haseley, Graduate Student, Research Methods and Statistics; Robyn Thomas Pitts, Assistant Professor, Evaluation & Mixed Methods Research

The Research Methods and Statistics (RMS) program in the Morgridge College of Education (MCE) prepares students to “use data as a tool for promoting…the public good.” In a series of community-engaged courses on evaluation research taught by Dr. Robyn Thomas Pitts, MCE graduate students are able to do just that. Over the course of 24 weeks, students work with community non-profit partners to evaluate their programs or services.

Building relationships and meaningful connections with community partners takes time and intentional work. Thanks to a Community-Engaged Learning Mini-Grant, MCE graduate student evaluators were able to participate in a fellowship program in which they reached out to potential community and university partners to develop community-engaged projects that would advance the public good. The Evaluating for the Greater Good Fellowship supported three such students to cultivate these relationships, develop meaningful community-engaged projects for the evaluation courses, and learn about culturally responsive approaches to evaluation.

For one community-engaged project supported by these fellows, a team of graduate students partnered with a Colorado non-profit called A Little Help, whose mission is to “connect neighbors to help older adults thrive.” A Little Help connects older adults with volunteers of all ages who can provide “a little help” with tasks like yard work or transportation. This in turn strengthens relationships and communities while enhancing the lives of both the older adults and volunteers.

Students worked on the community-engaged project with A Little Help with the support of their instructor, Dr. Thomas Pitts, and their CCESL fellow, Erin Haseley. In preparation for the project, Erin utilized the CCESL Scholar Shop to identify potential community partners who needed evaluation support. Erin was then able to connect with the Metro Denver program director for A Little Help. Working collaboratively with the program director, Erin developed a plan for how MCE graduate students could be of help to the organization through evaluation technical assistance. Ultimately, they decided to elaborate how the organization was helping older adults to thrive at home across all stages of the healthy aging process, which was no easy feat!

To accomplish this goal, students collected and analyzed four sources of data: they conducted a literature review on healthy aging, interviewed older adult members and program staff, analyzed survey data on member satisfaction, and reviewed program documents. Students used their understanding of these data to create an operational definition of “thriving” and a logic model depicting how the A Little Help’s activities and services contribute to their goals. They also used sentiment analysis to query the extent to which members’ experiences were positive, neutral, or negative.

The final report from this study provided preliminary evidence about how activities and services are being provided to support older adults who are living at home in the Metro Denver area. In addition, these findings will aid A Little Help in making appropriate changes to the services they offer and may help them to be more competitive in the data-driven world of grant funding. At the end of the project, and thanks to the CCESL Mini-Grant, DU graduate students were able to provide “a little help” to a deserving non-profit, all while increasing their skills as researchers, evaluators, and public “do-gooders.”

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