Graduate Students as Evaluation Consultants for Natural Resource Programs: A Service­ Learning Success Story

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CONFERENCE: Conference on University Education in Natural Resources

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Fuhrman, Nick
Education; Life Sciences
conference paper description
Providing graduate students with authentic, field‐based service‐learning experiences can be challenging. Promoting these experiences can be particularly difficult with graduate students enrolled in Extension‐related degree programs at a distance. Recent studies have found that employers desire new hires with Master’s degrees to have skills in educational program development and evaluation. In an effort to provide evaluation resources to statewide Extension programs, enhance the relevance of program evaluation skills for graduate students, and address the above‐listed challenges, twenty‐four Master’s level graduate students participating in a distance‐technology delivered (synchronous) program evaluation course served as evaluation consultants during the last four weeks of an eleven week long semester. In this presentation, participants will: (1) identify the similarities between program evaluation and photography via an interactive demonstration and video‐clip, (2) acquire step‐by‐step recommendations for planning, implementing, and evaluating a service‐learning component where students serve as information consultants, and (3) become aware of the impact of this consulting project on graduate students and their participating natural resource organization/program through success stories. During the weeks prior to their consulting, students were trained in participatory evaluation principles, including continuous stakeholder involvement while planning an evaluation, gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data, and sharing evaluation findings with stakeholders using practical and “fun” methods. Working in teams of three (based on programming interests and location of residence), students were assigned a local natural resource Extension program or environmental organization to assist. Extension programs included the Georgia Master Gardener, Master Naturalist, and Master Equine Programs. Environmental organizations included a local nature center, a 4‐H center, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. These programs and organizations had previously contacted the instructor and were excited to allow trained graduate students to provide evaluation leadership. Students were required to keep a consultant’s accountability journal, provide their clients/stakeholders with self‐developed helpful evaluation handouts (based on organizational needs), create an evaluation plan for their program/organization, and present their recommendations to clients in an evening clientele reception. Preliminary findings from the student consulting project indicated a higher level of competency in program evaluation stemming primarily from the need to teach others and a more positive attitude toward program evaluation as a discipline.