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Survey says . . .

Graduate students sharpen analytical skills on OPE work term

special feature: The Student Experience

Part of a special feature highlighting the student voice, student experience and the range of student supports and opportunities available at Memorial.

By Janet Harron

As a research tool, surveys are invaluable for gathering information from a sample of people and can provide a critical source of data and insight.

From left are Office of Public Engagement survey team members Kristen Dyson, Kelly Greenfield and Scott Taylor.
From left are Office of Public Engagement survey team members Kristen Dyson, Kelly Greenfield and Scott Taylor.
Photo: Submitted

But like so many other things in the digital age, surveys are undergoing a bit of an identity crisis.

Graduate student expertise

Although mobile technology makes survey taking easier, shorter attention spans can impact how many people begin and complete surveys. Asking the right questions, concisely, is critical.

To that end, the Office of Public Engagement hired graduate students from Memorial’s Master of Applied Psychological Science (MAPS) Program and the Department of Sociology to apply proven evaluation techniques when it launched a survey project this year.

“Students are not empty vessels, coming to us to be filled with our knowledge – they bring a wealth of experience and knowledge of their own,” said Sandy Brennan, former manager in the Office of Public Engagement (OPE) and the staff leader on the project.

The 2019 analysis follows a 2017 OPE survey of faculty and staff members regarding Memorial’s Public Engagement Framework. That survey, which graduate students also worked on, indicated that staff and faculty valued public engagement but were often unable to pursue it for a variety of reasons.

A recent conference on the topic suggested targeting students as part of capacity-building efforts for public engagement. And so, a second survey including student groups and members of the public began to take shape.

Best methods

In January 2019 Memorial alumnus Scott Taylor was a second-year MAPS student with previous experience administering a survey for Food First NL.

His responsibilities also included planning the timeline for the project, drafting the survey tool, uploading and formatting the survey in Qualtrics, analyzing the data and creating comprehensive reports.

“Public engagement really is a two-way street that is much more than a synonym for knowledge transfer.” — Scott Taylor

Mr. Taylor then chose to do the final report of his master’s program on data collected from the survey. For him, the project was significant from both an academic and applied perspective – and opened his eyes to the importance of public engagement.

“In my time with the Office of Public Engagement, I quickly realized that Memorial’s definition of public engagement encompasses many types of activities that are not only about how Memorial reaches out to members of the public, but also reflects the contributions that community members make to the research, teaching and learning that goes on at the university,” he said. “Public engagement really is a two-way street that is much more than a synonym for knowledge transfer.”

‘You help them and they help you’

Mr. Taylor’s survey team member Kristen Dyson, who analyzed survey data and created a synopsis of the report, agrees.

She says that ever since she worked on the survey, she’s discovered a new passion for community-engaged research, and the ways in which she can use her evaluation knowledge and skills to conduct such research.

Ms. Dyson recently applied to a PhD program in the area of  health and wellness and plans to work public engagement into her future research. She hopes to work with Alzheimer’s patients in Newfoundland and Labrador, incorporating their symptom experiences and hardships to collaboratively develop initiatives and resources for private and public caretakers.

“The benefit of applied research is mindblowing,” she said. “A researcher can learn from the community instead of just doing whatever they want and then leaving. You help them and they help you learn more.”

Published authors

Team member and PhD candidate Kelly Greenfield is a self-described “publicly engaged student.”

Ms. Greenfield, like many graduate students, says she has felt isolated in her own academic work. However, she says the collaborative approach of the survey project was a game-changer for her, so much so that she plans to design her own future projects to work in a similar way.

“In a way, our process was our methodology.” — Kelly Greenfield

“We were able to work on and improve our own individual weaknesses by teaching and learning from each other . . . in a way, our process was our methodology.”

The data collected by the survey identifies barriers to, and motivations for, engagement, suggestions to improve engagement and an overall increase in knowledge of public engagement.

In addition to successfully completing the survey project, the team recently received word that their paper, titled Learners as Leaders: A Collaborative Process for Building Students’ Capacity in Public Engagement, will be included in an upcoming volume to be published by Texas Tech University. The paper is co-authored with Penny Cofield, co-ordinator, public engagement supports, OPE.

Memorial University = public resource

For Mr. Taylor, being published is the icing on the cake in terms of career development.

“A book chapter on my CV is the next best thing to saying I wrote the book on that,” he said with a laugh. “It will definitely stick out in terms of comparison to other evaluation professionals.”

The biggest overall takeaway for this student team is Memorial’s potential as a publicly engaged institution.

“Every student should be encouraged to think about their research in terms of whether they can engage a public partner,” said Ms.Dyson. “And the public should be viewing Memorial as a resource and a place to reach out to if they need help.”

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