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Blog: Finding Opportunity in Unintended Outcomes

Posted on April 15, 2015 by  in Blog

Research and Evaluation Consultant, Steven Budd Consulting

Working with underage students bears an increased responsibility for their supervision. Concerns may arise during the implementation of activities that were never envisioned when the project was designed. These unintended consequences may be revealed during an evaluation, thus presenting an opportunity for PIs and evaluators to both learn and intervene.

One project I’m evaluating includes a website designed for young teens, and features videos from ATETV and other sources. The site encourages our teen viewers to share information about the site with their peers and to explore links to videos hosted on other popular sites like YouTube. The overarching goal is to attract kids to STEM and technician careers by piquing their interest with engaging and accurate science content. What we didn’t anticipate was the volume of links to pseudoscience, science denial, and strong political agendas they would encounter. The question for the PI and Co-PIs became, “How do we engage our young participants in a conversation about good versus not-so-good science and how to think critically about what they see?”

As the internal project evaluator, I first began a conversation with the project PI and senior personnel around the question of responsibility. What is the responsibility of the PIs to engage our underage participants in a conversation about critical thinking and learning, so they can discriminate between questionable and solid content? Such content is readily accessible to young teens as they surf the Web, so a more important question was how the project team might capture this reality and capitalize on it. In this sense, was a teaching moment at hand?

As evaluators on NSF-funded projects, we know that evaluator engagement is critical right from the start. Formative review becomes especially important when even well-designed and well thought out activities take unanticipated turns. Our project incorporates a model of internal evaluation, which enables project personnel to gather data and provide real-time assessment of activity outcomes. We then present the data with comment to our external evaluator. The evaluation team works with the project leadership to identify concerns as they arise and strategize a response. That response might include refining activities and how they are implemented or by creating entirely new activities that address a concern directly.

After thinking it through, the project leadership chose to open a discussion about critical thinking and science content with the project’s teen advisory group. Our response was to:

  • Initiate more frequent “check-ins” with our teen advisers and have more structured conversations around science content and what they think.
  • Sample other teen viewers as they join their peers in the project’s discussion groups and social media postings.
  • Seek to better understand how teens engage Internet-based content and how they make sense of what they see.
  • Seek new approaches to activities that engage young teens in building their science literacy and critical thinking.

Tips to consider

  • Adjust your evaluation questions to better understand the actual experience of your project’s participants, and then look for the teaching opportunities in response to what you hear.
  • Vigilant evaluation may reveal the first signs of unintended impacts.