WMU Evaluation Center celebrates 50 years of impact with $7.2M in recent grants

Contact: Samantha Hooker

The Evaluation Center staff at the 50th Anniversary Celebration at Heritage Hall in September.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Attracting more than $7 million in federal grants, Western Michigan University's Evaluation Center is paving the way for several exciting new initiatives as it celebrates 50 years of collaboration with partners from diverse sectors.

Part of the Office of Research and Innovation, the center is an interdisciplinary enterprise that supports WMU's research staff to strengthen their work through evaluation. The center has attracted more than $18 million in funding to WMU over the past five years, including two recent grants totaling $7.2 million.

Breaking ground in STEM education evaluation

With a $6.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for EvaluATE, the evaluation hub for the NSF's Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program, the center is positioned to expand its scope and reach.

Since 2008, EvaluATE has been a catalyst for improving the evaluations of STEM education programs focused on students earning two-year degrees. With a large collection of open-access resources, webinars and blogs for commissioners, beneficiaries and practitioners of evaluation, EvaluATE is committed to making program evaluation accessible to diverse audiences.

With research partners Dr. Ayesha Boyce at Arizona State University and Dr. Tiffany Tovey at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, EvaluATE is at the forefront of investigating how evaluators measure diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM education. The team is using their research findings to develop tools to improve this aspect of program evaluation practice.

In addition, a new badging system developed by EvaluATE will allow evaluators to assess their strengths and growth areas and earn micro-credentials to display in their digital portfolios.

“EvaluATE is funded to support a specific professional community working in STEM education, but we make sure our work is relevant to almost anyone who wants to know more about evaluation—why it matters, how it can help them and how to do it well,” says Lyssa Wilson Becho, EvaluATE’s principal investigator. “It's been really exciting to see our work reach global audiences and resonate with people working in diverse sectors.”

Reducing inequities and service gaps during times of crisis

A $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help fund a partnership with Families Against Narcotics (FAN), a Michigan-based organization that supports individuals and families struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Funded through NIH’s Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society program, the center will conduct a statewide resource assessment, identify service gaps, share best practices in crisis services and develop strategies to track the long-term success of new interventions.

FAN is working to develop services that reduce inequities and service gaps for people facing multiple crises during recovery, such as criminal justice involvement, homelessness, unemployment or mental health conditions.

 Brad Watts, assistant director of the Evaluation Center, says he's excited to be involved in a project from the beginning that will benefit Michigan's people.

“With this new funding, FAN is focusing on how to better serve those who are facing multiple crises at the same time, such as recovering from an overdose while also facing loss of housing, employment or another health diagnosis,” says Watts. “We get to be part of learning how the existing services operate, collecting data on what works or doesn’t, and sharing that information with FAN so they’re able to build a better system.”

President Edward Montgomery and Drs. Remzi Seker, vice president for research and innovation, and Lori Wingate, Evaluation Center executive director, at the 50th Anniversary Celebration.

A half-century of advancing evaluation excellence

Evaluation plays a vital role in sectors where people are working to make the world a better place, such as research, business, human service or policymaking. Program evaluation is the systematic process of gathering, analyzing and interpreting data to drive decision-making, foster growth and ensure accountability.

Founded in 1965 at Ohio State University and later establishing its roots at WMU in 1973, this venerable institution stands as one of the world's oldest and most respected centers for evaluation.

“I don’t know of another evaluation-focused organization that’s been around as long as the Evaluation Center," says Dr. Lori Wingate, executive director. "The center’s early leaders helped shape the field of evaluation, and we continue to build on that legacy.”

Moving into the future

One of the center's recent initiatives, the Evaluation Lab, is serving Kalamazoo-area nonprofits while providing WMU students with meaningful work coupled with hands-on, real-world learning. Students will learn how to design and conduct surveys, facilitate focus groups and use data to drive change. Working in small teams, they’ll also hone their collaboration, communication and critical-thinking skills.

Brandon Youker, director of the Evaluation Lab, says he's excited about the future. The lab will offer a range of services, such as evaluation strategy development, survey design and analysis, literature reviews, needs assessments, outcome harvesting, data analysis and theory-of-change development. He says multiple proposals totaling nearly $1 million have been submitted to local philanthropic groups for future grants to support this venture.

“I look forward to engaging with the local community and supporting organizations that work with the community’s most vulnerable, oppressed and marginalized,” says Youker. “Our hope is that by providing collaborative, affordable and culturally responsive evaluation services, the lab can contribute to the creation of a more thriving and inclusive community for everyone.”

A new venture

As the lab gets up and running, the Evaluation Center is getting ready to launch an online professional learning program that will reach a global audience. Opened with three courses in the fall, the center plans to continue to offer a comprehensive set of self-paced online courses to meet the demand for accessible, practical education about evaluation.

“A lot of people with program evaluation responsibilities fall into that role accidentally and without formal training. We’re aiming to help that group: People who aren’t interested in going back to school for a master’s or Ph.D. in evaluation but who need program evaluation knowledge and skills to do their jobs,” Dr. Kelly Robertson, the program’s co-developer, says.

“This is a bold new venture for the Evaluation Center,” Wingate adds. “The courses will be fee-based and we expect the program to become self-sustaining over time.”

The CDC Foundation provided seed funding to develop one of the courses, and Wingate says she hopes other organizations may be interested in doing something similar to meet the needs of their personnel. “Our aim is to deliver high-quality, accessible evaluation training at a low-cost for learners.”

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