Program Evaluation and the Art of Cheese Making

by Rich Preyer, MOS Intern

Cheesy and confusing blog post title? Oh, you betcha! I only mentioned cheese making in the title to draw you in! Is the process of program evaluation cheesy and confusing? Well, maybe if you are evaluating the effectiveness of a cheese-making workshop for mice. On a more serious note, I would contend that a lot of people find the art of program evaluation to be, at the very least, complicated. This blog post will attempt to clarify what program evaluation is and how Maine Outdoor School (MOS) is using it to assess the learning needs of 4-7 year olds in Downeast Maine.

So what is program evaluation? Program evaluation can be used to determine the effectiveness of a program, assist in program improvement, or guide the creation of a new program. To guide the creation of a cheese-making workshop for mice, for example, this “front-end evaluation” concept might entail asking mice of all ages what types of cheese they would like to learn to make and what types of educational opportunities they think would help them best learn this process. This “front-end evaluation” or “needs assessment” is the type of program evaluation MOS is conducting in Maine over the coming months.  

You are probably wondering why MOS would want to spend the time and resources on such a project, when the school is in its infancy and there are about 1,000 other things to do to get it off the ground. This is a fair concern. However, now is really the perfect time to conduct such an evaluation. By doing so, we will ensure that MOS creates programs that are valued in Downeast Maine, thus preventing us from wasting precious time and resources designing a program that is neither wanted nor needed in the region: a short term investment for long term success. Imagine if a new organization came to town in mouse-land and started cheese-making workshops without checking to see whether the mice really wanted that first? It could be that there was already a dairy-processing school in full operation there that the workshop organizers never heard of—their new cheese-making workshops would not only be redundant in the community, but also might appear to be a threat to the existing local resources.

So, where are we now in this front-end evaluation process? We are meeting with teachers, principals, and parents in Downeast Maine to determine the educational wants and needs of 4-7 year-old residents. To do this properly, we will be conducting interviews, focus groups, and surveys with several different audiences so that we gain as broad a range of perspectives as possible.  We have spent the last five months creating and refining these evaluation tools so that our questions are relevant and elicit responses that are helpful in shaping MOS’s future programming for 4-7 year-old children. It’s an exciting time for us because we are in the middle of scheduling and hosting these events and getting closer to finally seeing our hard work come to fruition. So far the process is proving to be loads (wheels) of fun and giving us valuable perspectives! Stay tuned for more blog posts about the whole process.

Well, now that you’ve read about all of the great things MOS has been up to in the doldrums of February and early March, you might still be wondering what any of this has to do with the art of cheese making—or any new idea in a community. To answer this logical question, we wish any entrepreneurial mice the same advice: don’t be one of those blind mice. Always conduct a front-evaluation before grating (grading) your program’s cheese.