SERC and the Importance of Impact Assessment

  • Published: Monday, March 8, 2021


Life has changed drastically in this past year. Education, work, and even grocery shopping are now conducted through webcams and computer screens rather than face to face. While few institutions thrived during this time, the transition has been easier for some than others. The problem many establishments encounter is in understanding what engagement methods are effective virtually.

The Science Education Research Center (SERC) evaluates teaching practices, tools, and engagement methods to assess which aspects are working well and which can be improved. These evaluations are done at the individual and institutional level through qualitative and statistical analyses of data gathered through, for example, surveys and interviews. Evaluation plans vary to better personalize data to benefit each project or part of an institution. Recently, I interviewed Ellen Altermatt and Ellen Iverson, education and evaluation specialists at SERC, to understand the importance and impact of institutional assessment.

While the word "assessment" has a rather scary connotation, understanding weakness is the key to improvement. Since the abrupt switch to a virtual environment, there is a risk of declines in engagement, and methods that succeeded pre-COVID may not be as effective today.

As evaluators for ARIS, Altermatt and Iverson have focused their evaluation on three main categories: professional development, resource effectiveness, and community infrastructure. Professional development is important to help individuals and institutions adapt to the changing environment. For some, the shift to a virtual environment has allowed for larger recruitment pools and an increase in attendance as long-distance community members are no longer at a disadvantage. However, the level of engagement may suffer as participants suffer from Zoom fatigue. Resource effectiveness aids in solving that problem by giving faculty and staff easy to use resources. By planning carefully for virtual events and building upon lessons learned from earlier evaluation efforts, community infrastructures can be built to improve the ease of data information sharing.

An additional SERC project that quickly switched to virtual activities, the Polar Literacy Initiative, is working to create a series of modules that introduce kids to topics about the poles by analyzing real world data. While the modules are easily accessible and participation has been strong during the virtual transition, it can be challenging to ensure that all kids are actively engaged. The environment has changed in such a drastic manner that the same teaching methods used pre-pandemic can sometimes be ineffective. When kids participate with cameras turned off and mics muted, it can be even more important to actively assess their engagement.

SERC emphasizes the need for self-evaluation. In one study, Altermatt and Iverson tracked stress by asking faculty to take a daily survey for three weeks. While this could have seemed tedious, many of the participants were actually grateful for the questions as it helped them become more self-aware of their own stress and how it was affecting their teaching, research, and work-life balance.

Without constant feedback, we do not know what communication efforts are effective. SERC is helping organizations thrive, not just survive, in an increasingly online world.

By Laura Bowden, Green Fin Studios