Cornell sociology major Alyssa Webb ’15 hopes to earn her Ph.D. and join a think tank, where she can evaluate public programs and policy and “make a real-world impact.”
This semester, Webb got a head start on that goal in Maureen Waller’s Research Design, Practice and Policy course, where she and 16 classmates analyzed five years of survey responses collected from more than 3,200 parents and caregivers enrolled in Cornell Cooperative Extension parent education programs across New York. The students’ findings, presented Dec. 4 to extension staff and leaders of the Parenting in Context initiative in the College of Human Ecology, are contributing to a research report on statewide CCE child-rearing programs and will guide future evaluations.
“It’s an exciting win-win because students are able to deepen their critical thinking and research skills, and they are providing a valuable public service to partners in extension,” said Waller, associate professor of policy analysis and management. “The project grounds abstract concepts in the real world, and at the same time it is helping to fill a need that would likely go unmet.”
Statewide, CCE offers more than 30 parent education programs, interventions with names such as “Discipline Is Not a Dirty Word” and “Parenting a Second Time Around (PASTA)” to support various types of caregivers – parents going through a divorce, grandparents raising grandchildren, or single or teen parents, for instance. To boost their efficacy, program leaders strive to test the curricula and ground them in the latest research, said Eliza Cook, extension support specialist for Parenting in Context.
Working in teams guided by doctoral student Youngmin Yi, the class completed a review of prior research, analyzed close- and open-ended survey responses, assessed the statewide survey instrument and made recommendations for an evaluation of the PASTA program.
After viewing the final presentations, Kimberly Kopko, Ph.D. ’05, senior extension associate and Parenting in Context associate director, concluded: “The students have provided a tremendous service for us. They have expanded the scope of our work in a way that hasn’t been done before, and offered numerous ideas for strengthening our parent education programs.”
Kopko added that the final report would be helpful to the dozens of CCE parent educators working across the state, and she plans to present the PASTA recommendations to program leaders at CCE New York City.
In response to the presentations, Nigel Gannon, extension associate in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and New York state 4-H healthy program living specialist, said the coursework gives students a firsthand look at the challenges and payoffs of program evaluation.
Gannon hopes to tap into student expertise to develop a similar statewide survey tool for 4-H, and already he is partnering with Cornell Institute for Public Affairs graduate students to evaluate youth programs.
“I can’t think of a better example demonstrating the principles and value of an engaged Cornell experience than these types of partnerships,” Gannon added. “Through them, Cornell students are more formally connected to the outreach or engagement arm of Cornell and its deep programming in every nook and cranny of the state.”
Waller said that many students in the course are interested in working for nonprofits, government or public policy institutes after Cornell, all places where program evaluation is critical. “The first question you hear in these environments is, how do you know this program is working?” Waller said.
For Webb, the course has solidified her excitement for research and policy.
“A lot of my sociology work has been theory based, but in this course it’s been cool to work with actual data and translate these ideas in real-world situations,” she added. “Many of the things I’ve been learning came together in this course – ethnography, statistics, demography – and it’s great to see how it all intertwines.”
Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology.