For the Love of Literature Reviews
Author: Rachel Lubischer
Published: February 19, 2020
What comes to mind when you think of research? I recently spoke to a class of freshman engineering students at UNO about social science research. When asked the same question, the soon-to-be-engineers said:
“You can’t use Wikipedia”
“Hours at a computer”
Look, I get it. A few years ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. The students were describing literature reviews, a common activity in the research process where the researcher compiles and reviews existing information relevant to a population or program. Whether the students know it or not, using existing information to inform practice keeps everyone, including engineers, from having to “reinvent the wheel.”
Literature reviews are one of the most exciting parts of the research or program evaluation process. At STEPs, our partner organizations are pursuing a wide range of missions, from human trafficking awareness to increased school choice for low-income families. Being informed on what evidence-based practices, innovative strategies, population trends, and data exists nationwide for these diverse project areas is necessary to be the best steward of your time and resources.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to better understand how your work fits into the context of similar efforts nationwide. We love the Wikipedia-free, “boring” hours at a computer!
Building Your Evaluation and Data Muscles
Author: December Lange Treacy
Published: January 16, 2020
“I’m not an evaluation person.”
“Data is not my thing.”
“The math is too hard.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard one of these phrases from a student, community partner, or friend, I could afford to fulfill my dream of being a stay-at-home dog mom. The reality is that no one (myself included) starts out as an evaluation and data person. Instead, I grew to become an evaluation and data person with a lot of patience and trial and error (with extra emphasis on the error!).
Carol Dweck, the pioneer of growth mindset research, compares the process of developing these types of skills to that of building muscles. If you want to build your bicep, you have to work the muscle in a way that is challenging. If you did 100 bicep curls with a pencil, you would not make much progress toward your goal! Instead, you’d want to pick a challenging weight. You would expend more effort and your muscle may ache more, but this is how you increase your strength and build your muscle over time.
Learning to become a program evaluation or data person is similar. You have to work the connections in your brain (your evaluation and data muscles), and when you feel frustrated or challenged by the learning process, that is how you know those connections are getting stronger. With persistence and ongoing effort, these connections will grow, and your evaluation and data skills will build.
I would love to tell you that I started running descriptive statistics while I was still in my crib and graduated to inferential statistics over commercial breaks during Barney & Friends. However, I came to proficiency in evaluation and data through many hours spent scouring textbooks, absorbing tutorials, practicing analysis and reporting, and receiving feedback. My evaluation and data muscles are stronger now than they have ever been, but I am always looking for new challenges to keep building these skills.
At STEPs, we are here to support you at whatever level you and your evaluation and data muscles are. We offer professional development workshops on a variety of topics, as well as customizable training and technical assistance to help you grow.
What is one way you’d like to improve your evaluation and data skills? Reach out to us at email@example.com and let us know.
Data Visualization at the Dinner Table
Author: Jodi Gabel, Ph.D.
Published: November 15, 2019
Data Visualization has so many uses. One of my favorite tasks as an evaluator is to take complex ideas and convey them simply in the form of a picture. I have been in countless meetings and presentations attempting to verbally explain data, but it’s clear that my audience just isn’t “getting it.” I find that when I can introduce the data in the form of a picture or diagram, however, the lightbulb often turns on, and the audience is able to comprehend ideas in a new way. What I hadn’t considered until recently, however, was the ability of these visualizations to mend great divides between groups. Case study: my children.
Outside my work as an evaluator, I am a mom of 4 spunky children ranging in age from 4 to 12. Like most children, they each see the world from a unique perspective, and battles often ensue over seemingly irrelevant topics. One night at the dinner table, a rather heated debate erupted over the differences and similarities of their Christmas program from last year versus this year. One child made the assertion rather emphatically, “This year’s Christmas program is just like last year.” To which the next child replied (very loudly), “What?!?! This year’s program is nothing like last year!” Bickering ensued between the two preteens, with the volume and intensity of the conversation quickly escalating. Just as I was posed to settle the argument with an even louder voice, my 8 year old interjected, “If the two Christmas plays were represented by a Venn diagram, the space in the middle would be that they were written by someone that does not work at our school.” Silence. Argument settled. As both a mom and a program evaluator, I sat with my mouth gaping in awe. If only the world (and our family) utilized more Venn diagrams…
I recently was able to use data visualization with a community partner in a similar way. Like my children, professionals often see the world from different perspectives. In this particular project, years of conflict had formed a great divide between groups that desperately needed to work together for the good of the community. While the divide was indeed complex, the reality was quite simply that each group had a different perspective. My task as an evaluator was to find the metaphorical “middle of the Venn diagram” through a needs assessment. What did each group need from each other? What were the barriers to achieving this? To work toward a solution, we began with a visual. And the visual served as our reference point throughout the entire project. While it was not a magic wand, using visualizations throughout the project helped to mend fences and bring people to the table.
Here at STEPs we tackle many tough issues and problems by utilizing and communicating data in a way that is useful and understandable for YOU. We are about more than numbers and surveys. Our passion is helping you carry out your mission. Sometimes, maybe it’s as simple (and complex) as finding that middle of the Venn diagram.
The Leadership and Culture of STEPs
Author: Jessica Weins
Published: October 18, 2019
I initially learned about STEPs through the recommendation of a mentor and UNMC professor, Dr. Keyonna King. Dr. King had previously served as a program evaluator for STEPs. Through her class at UNMC, I became passionate about community-based participatory research, and Dr. King became aware of my interest in evaluation. She steered me toward the STEPs opportunity because of the community collaboration focus and evaluation experience it offers. Immediately after my interview with Dr. Jeanette Harder, I wished I had found STEPs sooner.
My appreciation and fondness for STEPs are so strong. I feel I have been a part of the team for much longer than I actually have. These feelings come from the combination of being inspired, motivated, supported, and empowered every day. STEPs pushed me to be a better student, evaluator, colleague, and person. This sounds like a cliché and too good to be true, but in this case, it actually is true. In fact, I almost postponed my graduation to continue working at STEPs. My positive experience stems from three main sources, each relating to the leadership and culture of STEPs.
Dr. Jeanette Harder: Without Jeanette, STEPs would not exist. The collaboration, community partnerships, utilization-focused work, and professionalism stem from Jeanette’s knowledge of and passion for evaluation. I was fortunate to get to observe her bid projects and field tough evaluation questions in different settings. The time and development Jeanette puts into the STEPs team is an investment I had never previously experienced from a supervisor. For example, Jeanette developed a Growth Assessment tool which we use both to track our progress and experience with specific skills and activities and to document specific skills and experience we hope to gain during our time with STEPs. Jeanette’s model of supervision really taught me what to look for in a supervisor and also set an example for how I would like to lead in the future when I am in a supervisory position.
Jodi Gabel: As a program evaluator at STEPs, Jodi Gabel has been an incredible leader and teacher for me. I had a definite learning curve when I joined STEPs, and I was constantly pushed out of my comfort and knowledge zones. Jodi’s faith in me provided a safe space to fail without being discouraged. Through each of these learning opportunities, I was thankful for her expertise and patience as a teacher. Her ability to provide me with the autonomy to work and grow independently was balanced with her ability to provide exceptional advice and guidance at just the right moments. She routinely asked what I needed from her in order to succeed, and I always felt valued and appreciated.
Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs): Last but definitely not least, my experience at STEPs was greatly enriched by the relationships I made with the other GRAs. Many of my favorite memories with STEPs were made when all of the GRAs were in the office together. Through these times and our weekly GRA meetings, the GRA team formed a strong bond and a lasting comradery. In each GRA, I found a role model and a friend, and at least one of the team (usually more!) was always ready with much appreciated support, encouragement, and Excel data analysis tips. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a team of students who exhibit such incredible integrity, knowledge, wisdom, and teamwork.
During my graduate education, I was involved in numerous and varied groups and activities. For the three reasons listed above, and for so many more, I can genuinely say STEPs was one of my most influential experiences. My experience with STEPs was integral in my becoming a finalist in the nationally competitive Presidential Management Fellows Program and a Fellow with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The skills and confidence I gained while at STEPs served me well in interviewing for and in landing my dream job of working for the CDC. I am confident that I will continually draw upon the experience, skills, and personal growth gained during my time with STEPs, and I am grateful to have been part of the STEPs team.
Weaving Our Mission with Yours
Author: Pam Ashley
Published: September 19, 2019
Nonprofits in our community are driven by their powerful and heart-felt missions. I want to explore how our mission here at STEPs aligns with those missions of our partner organizations.
The STEPs team spent a good deal of time and energy defining our own mission:
STEPs promotes evidence-informed decision making through research and evaluation using a collaborative, utilization-focused approach to support social service programs and policies that transform and improve lives.
It lays out our focus and passion, but can also be a little overwhelming. So, let’s step through how our mission aligns with those of our partners.
Our social service program partners strive to transform and improve lives with a focus defined by their mission. They wrestle with using their available resources wisely to fulfill that mission. To be successful in that effort, organizations need to make strategic decisions about their direction and resources. That’s where STEPs comes in.
Strategic decisions need to be informed by evidence and insights. The STEPs staff–professionals, faculty and students alike–bring evaluation expertise and experience to support our partners in making those decisions. Here’s how we do that:
1. We start by gaining an understanding of what strategic decisions need to be made. This ensures that our work and projects are “utilization-focused.”
2. We work in collaboration with our partners to define each project including its objectives, approaches, timeline, and cost.
3. We gather, analyze, and present the research data or “evidence” defined in the step above.
4. We support our partners in understanding and applying that evidence to their strategic decisions.
Through this process we fulfill our mission, and in doing so, support our partners in achieving theirs–weaving our mission with yours!
An Introduction to STEPs
Author: Jenni Smith
Date: August 15, 2019
My name is Jenni Smith, and I began working with STEPs as a Graduate Student Worker in October 2018. Before coming to UNO as a graduate student in the Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, I volunteered, interned, and worked with a range of nonprofit organizations, both large and small. Now having an insider view, I see how useful an organization like STEPs could have been to many of those organizations.
Often, working in nonprofits, especially smaller ones, we think we don’t have the funding for professional evaluation, consultation, training, etc., even when those very services could prove invaluable to our work. STEPs, though, is able to structure a plan that can work for just about any size and type of organization. STEPs can meet with you and discuss what it is your organization, program, or project really needs and tailor what we can do to fit both those needs as well as your budget.
STEPs is a collaborative organization. Internally, we are a team that works together and assists one another. When working with our community partners, a smaller version of that team is assigned to the project. STEPs works alongside the community partner so they have as much input as possible.
STEPs is an organization true to its mission: “…to promote evidence-informed decision making through research and evaluation using a collaborative, utilization-focused approach to support social service programs and policies that transform and improve lives.” It’s that last piece–“transform and improve lives”–that really strikes me continually and makes me so proud to be a member of the STEPs team. And that is what STEPs does–it helps organizations transform and improve the lives of those they serve. It is an honor to be a part of an organization like STEPs, where, as a team, we know our work will be used for the betterment of people and of communities.
STEPs can help your organization improve and transform the lives of those you serve. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the discussion, and we look forward to working with you.