Student experience meets community impact in groundbreaking new Evaluation Lab

Contact: Brandon Youker
People sitting around a table using laptops.

Dr. Brandon Youker, standing, works with student employees in the Evaluation Lab.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University is excited to announce the opening of the Evaluation Lab, an innovative initiative designed to serve the Kalamazoo community while providing hands-on training in program evaluation for WMU students.

"Through the Evaluation Lab, we're able to leverage The Evaluation Center's extensive expertise and experience in evaluation to benefit both students and local nonprofits," says Dr. Lori Wingate, executive director of The Evaluation Center. 

The new lab provides program evaluation and related services to local nonprofit agencies. It partners with organizations to help them measure impact, assess needs, identify opportunities to improve and demonstrate their value through systematic analysis of both numbers and stories. 

"Working with the Evaluation Lab at WMU greatly reduces the financial barriers for non-profit organizations like ours," says Deleon Dyson, operations director for Can-Do Kalamazoo, a collaborative business incubator and enterprise hub. "The Evaluation Lab provides us with valuable insights into how effectively our programs are serving entrepreneurs' needs."

By prioritizing organizations with social justice missions and programs, the lab hopes to play a role in advancing equity in the Kalamazoo community.

The power of program evaluation

Dr. Lori Wingate, left, observes Evaluation Lab student employee Cece Chapleau working with WMU staff members.

Systematic evaluation enables organizations to learn about themselves and their constituents, measure and monitor progress, improve processes and outcomes, and use data to drive decision-making. By gathering and communicating evidence of the quality and effectiveness of their programs, organizations can maximize their community impact. 

The Evaluation Lab is positioned to help organizations understand the assets and needs of the people participating in the programs they evaluated, including their experiences of oppression and discrimination.

“You’ve probably been asked to be reflective in your work," says Dr. Brandon Youker, the lab’s director. "Evaluation is essentially reflection with solid data."

Delivering experience-driven learning

The Evaluation Lab's inaugural group of student evaluators includes nine undergraduates and one graduate student with diverse majors and backgrounds. They learn evaluation skills on the job under the guidance of Youker. The student evaluators meet with local organizations’ leaders, design surveys, analyze data, conduct interviews and focus groups, give presentations and write reports, among many other tasks. Along the way, they develop skills in critical thinking, cultural competence, teamwork and communication. 

"My goal is to support the students in developing transferable skills through work that is valuable for the community and meaningful to the students. In a little over a month, I’ve already witnessed tons of growth in understanding data, the logic of evaluation and project management," Youker says. 

"The Evaluation Lab is the most exciting thing I've done in my career because it's having an immediate benefit for WMU students," adds Wingate. "The students are learning valuable skills they'll be able to use throughout their future careers."

For some students, their role at the Evaluation Lab is an opportunity to do something a little different than what they are studying. Mo Tall, a sophomore double majoring in finance and leadership and business strategy, explains, “I want to go into investment banking. I appreciate  being able to work with data in a different way than I think I would've in any other situation.” 

For others, the experience has deepened their commitment to their career. 

Dr. Remzi Seker sits between two students.

Dr. Remzi Seker, vice president for research and innovation, talks with Evaluation Lab student employees Tanairis Garcia-Lopez, left, and Charlie DeGraves, right.

“I’ve been here two months, and I’m realizing this is my future job: evaluation. I want to be a policy analyst, so I’m going to be doing evaluations in some form,” says Deborah Williams, a senior majoring in social work. 

Many of the student evaluators cite the opportunity to make a difference as what motivated them to apply for a position at the lab. Jazmin Morón, a junior majoring in political science, appreciates the chance to work with local organizations, enabling her to be “part of that difference that continues to be in the making.”   

The student evaluators also value the opportunity to work in teams with peers from varied backgrounds and disciplines. 

“I really enjoy not only the diversity in fields that people are pursuing as undergrads but also the diversity in thought, too,” explains Tanairis Garcia-Lopez, a first-year student majoring in political science. “Everyone here comes from very different walks of life, and because of that, I feel like they're able to give a different perspective. So, I think that it's challenged my thinking in a lot of ways that I wouldn't honestly have been able to have at any other place.”

Accountancy major Victor Hernandez, a sophomore, says the lab has “set a high standard of what it’s like to work on an efficient, professional team.” He adds he thinks the evaluation assistant job at the Evaluation Lab will help his resume stand out in the future. “There aren’t many universities with evaluation centers, and there are not many universities with evaluation centers that let undergrads get involved.”

Minimizing barriers for organizations

A grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation supported start-up costs to ensure the Evaluation Lab can support organizations with less access to high-quality evaluation. The WMU Foundation is sponsoring the lab’s work with a collaboration among four Kalamazoo nonprofits working to reduce intergenerational poverty in Kalamazoo County. 

By leveraging the talent of students, the lab is able to offer high-quality services at a lower cost. It uses a simplified contract and straightforward pricing structure that makes it easy for organizations to work with them. 

"Having the lab housed at Western Michigan University, guided by the instructors and students, brings a unique perspective to data collection and analysis, providing access to their expertise and allowing us to evaluate our programming impact confidently," Dyson says.

The Evaluation Lab opened its doors in January and is already working with six local organizations, showing that it’s addressing a previously unmet need in the community for affordable evaluation services. Donations to help the lab keep costs low for local organizations can be made online.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online