Newsletter: Why Does the NSF Worry about Project/Center Evaluation?

Posted on April 1, 2015 by  in Newsletter - ()

Lead Program Director, ATE, National Science Foundation

I often use a quick set of questions that Dr. Gerhard Salinger developed in response to the question, “How do you develop an excellent proposal?” Question 4 is especially relevant to the issue of project/center evaluation:

  1. What is the need that will be addressed?
  2. How do you specifically plan to address this need?
  3. Does your project team have the necessary expertise to carry out your plan?
  4. How will you know if you succeed?
  5. How will you tell other people about the results and outcomes?

Question 4 is addressing the evaluation activities of a project or center, and I hope you consider it essential for conducting an effective and successful project. Formative assessment guides you and lets you know if your strategy is working; it gives you the information to shift strategies if needed. A summative assessment then provides you and others with information on the overall project goals and objectives. Evaluation adds the concept of value to your project. For example, the evaluation activities might provide you with information on the participants’ perceived value of the workshop, and follow-on evaluation activities might provide you with information as to how many faculty used what they learned in a course. A final step might be to evaluate the impact on student learning in the course following the course change.

As a program officer, I can quickly scan the project facts (e.g., how many of this or that), but I tend to spend much more time on the evaluation data as it provides the value component to your project activities. Let’s go back to the faculty professional development workshops. Program officers definitely want to know if the workshops were held and how many people attended, but it is essential to provide information on the value of the workshops. It’s great to know that faculty “liked” the workshop, but of greater importance is the impact on their teaching practices and student learning that occurred due to the change. Your annual reports (yes, we do read them carefully) can provide the entire evaluation report as an attachment, but it would be really helpful if you, the PI, provided an overview of what you see as your project value added within the body of the report.

There are several reasons evaluation information is important to NSF program officers. First, each federal dollar that you expend carrying out your project is one that the taxpayers expect both you and the NSF to be accountable for. Second, within the NSF, program portfolios are scrutinized to determine programmatic impact and effectiveness. Third, the ATE program is congressionally mandated and program data and evaluation are often used to respond to congressional questions. Put more concisely, NSF wants to know if the investment in your project/center was a wise one and if value was generated from this investment.