Why we care about measuring impacts

As we have formulated logic models and work plans to articulate the focus of our programs, we often find ourselves trying to summarize the importance of the work we do. Often the easiest measures are ones that measure importance in a way that may tell us how many people use our programs or how frequently people contact us for our services. For example, we know that our Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development programs reach 11 percent of the youth in our state. That’s good to know, and even more valuable is knowing whether that percentage is increasing or decreasing. Certainly, an increase in the percent of youth reached is indicative of how broad our reach is and how effective our programs are at recruiting and retaining participants and the volunteers who serve them. Yet, as education professionals, we want to know more than just who showed up. We really don’t know how lives are changed by simply recording the number of participants. We need to know and we need to be able to report on what difference our programs made to those participants.

 In today’s story about the Deford Dazzlers 4-H Rocket Team, it’s pretty cool to celebrate what those youth accomplished, and ranking 10th in the nation is nothing to take lightly. But how will that rocketry experience affect the Dazzlers when they are adults? And what outcomes would we want to see? In 4-H, we say that we want to help prepare youth to be competent, confident, connected, caring, contributing adults. How do we measure that, and how do we determine the role that 4-H played in their development? Those are really difficult questions to answer, and scholars spend entire careers trying to find ways to measure those impacts. We’re fortunate to have colleagues at MSU and at land-grant universities across the country who help us make those measurements. Those long-term impacts are the most challenging to measure. If a Dazzler from 2012 ends up as head of NASA, do we take credit for that? Of course not. Yet, I don’t think anyone would deny that our program had an impact on that youth’s education and career choices that resulted in appointment as NASA director. What if another Dazzler ends up farming in Tuscola County? Do we say the 4-H experience had no impact on their educational and career choices? Of course not. Every experience a youth encounters has an impact on their future trajectory. What the youth learned from rocketry probably will have a lot of relevance to operating agricultural equipment in the 21st century. But that youth has gained much more than a deep understanding of physics and chemistry. He or she has learned how to work with others on a team, has learned how to appreciate the skills of others, has learned how to communicate effectively with peers and with adults.

 I’m really happy for the Dazzlers – nothing is more exhilarating than watching a rocket take off successfully, disappear into the sky, and then reappear with parachute fully deployed. And to do it so successfully is simply awesome. It’s a tremendous accomplishment for them and for the adults like Mark Hansen who help them with their projects. I’m confident that they are more likely to be competent, confident, connected, caring and contributing adults as a result of their efforts. I look forward to the day that we’ll know what contributions those Dazzlers make as adults to test the confidence I have in their experiences. And I appreciate all efforts that my MSUE colleagues make to measure even the short-term impacts of our programs so that we can show the value of our work to others. And I appreciate all efforts that my MSUE colleagues make to expand our reach to serve even more than 11 percent of the youth in Michigan. They all need experiences like the Dazzlers’ to ensure Michigan’s future success.

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