I’m Christopher Lutz, chemistry faculty at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. When our project was initially awarded, I was a first-time National Science Foundation (NSF) principal investigator. I understood external evaluation was required for grants but saw it as an administrative hurdle in the grant process. I viewed evaluation as proof for the NSF that we did the project and as a metric for outcomes. While both of these aspects are important, I learned evaluation is also an opportunity to monitor and improve your process and grant. Working with our excellent external evaluators, we built a stronger program in our grant project. You can too, if you are open to evaluation feedback.
Our evaluation team was composed of an excellent evaluator and a technical expert. I started working with both about halfway through the proposal development process (a few months before submission) to ensure they could contribute to the project. I recommend contacting evaluators during the initial stages of proposal development and checking in several times before submission. This gives adequate time for your evaluators to develop a quality evaluation plan and gives you time to understand how to incorporate your evaluator’s advice. Our funded project yielded great successes, but we could have saved time and achieved more if we had involved our evaluators earlier in the process.
After receiving funding, we convened grant personnel and evaluators for a face-to-face meeting to avoid wasted effort at the project start. Meeting in person allowed us to quickly collaborate on a deep level. For example, our project evaluator made real-time adjustments to the evaluation plan as our academic team and technical evaluator worked to plan our project videos and training tools. Include evaluator travel funds in your budget and possibly select an evaluator who is close by. We did not designate travel funds for our Kansas-based evaluator, but his ties to Minnesota and understanding of the value of face-to-face collaboration led him to use some of his evaluation salary to travel and meet with our team.
Here are three ways we used evaluation feedback to strengthen our project:
Example 1: The first-year evaluation report showed a perceived deficiency in the project’s provision of hands-on experience with MALDI-MS instrumentation. In response, we had students make small quantities of liquid solution instead of giving pre-mixed solutions, and let them analyze more lab samples. This change required minimal time but led students to regard the project’s hands-on nature as a strength in the second-year evaluation.
Example 2: Another area for improvement was students’ lack of confidence in analyzing data. In response to this feedback, project staff create Excel data analysis tools and a new training activity for students to practice with literature data prior to analyzing their own. The subsequent year’s evaluation report indicated increased student confidence.
Example 3: Input from our technical evaluator allowed us to create videos that have been used in academic institutions in at least three US states, the UK’s Open University system, and Iceland.
Provided here are some overall tips:
- Work with your evaluator(s) early in the proposal process to avoid wasted effort.
- Build in at least one face-to-face meeting with your evaluator(s).
Review evaluation data and reports with the goal of improving your project in the next year.
Consider external evaluators as critical friends who are there to help improve your project. This will help move your project forward and help you have a greater impact for all.