Associate professor, Dr. Josh Packard, and Lead Researcher, Megan Bissell, discuss how the Social Research Lab provides community businesses with tangible data while cultivating authentic experiences for UNC students.
Josh: The lab was started I think about 10 years ago before I got here through a small internal grant with the idea that we wanted to bridge the gap between the university and the surrounding community in some way through the sociology department. And the way the lab as evolved is that, what we do now, what makes up the core of our business activities is that we take contracts from people on and off campus who need data collection and analysis. It's very simple. Our core businesses is very straight forward. So that's a lot of surveys, a lot of focus groups. We do interviews. We haven't really found a data collection process or method that we can't execute. And the great thing is that it works in two ways. I think the benefits are twofold. The community gets an opportunity to engage with us who are experts in the field at data collection and making sense of it and telling you what your data means at an affordable price. And our students get this really great way of bridging what they're learning in the classroom to what is actually going on in the real world. So in the classroom, you know, you get these neat little sets of problems that the book is designed for you to work through - Usually, or a professor designed for you to work through pretty cleanly - and in the real world of course, that doesn't work that way. And so the students get to see how that actually shows up. A lot of times in the for profit world, but nonprofit worlds where data, data sets aren't neat and clean. Clients don't always know what they want. Like, getting respondents on a survey is not the easiest thing in the world. And then making sense of it on the back end is not always just a straight forward process. And that's actually how Megan came into the lab at first was as an undergraduate student.
Megan: I was working on staff actually here on campus and I'm finishing my degree and I was really drawn to the idea of this. The lab is like a teaching hospital for research. And so I was finishing my sociology degree and I knew this guy (Josh) and he's like, ''we have this great lab. And I'm like, what is that?
Josh: And of course I think it's great. I run it.
Megan: He runs it. So of course there is some bias I had to see it for myself. And I'm really glad I did the education first mission and the fact that like it was a place where students could come and learn how to actually apply the thing they were studying in a controlled environment. Like, we put out a product to the client, it's going to be a good product, but there is room behind scenes for them to learn and mess up. And like you said, there are no clean projects in the real world. And so this was a really good space. It's overseen by PhDs. We have graduate students and undergrads all working together on these projects. Learning some advanced research and statistical methods, but mostly it's like these are what the projects look like.
Josh: Project management, client management. I mean, Megan's, right, like I'll hire any student at any time. In part if they're, if they don't have skills and they just want to learn, they can come and we'll pay them to learn. Like I don't think, I don't think we give students enough opportunity to develop their expertise, especially at the University of Northern Colorado where a lot of our students, you know, we're competing for their time with like Chick-Fil-a or whatever, hourly job to build jobs and commutes. And so our business model in the lab, like the revenue model is really great in that it allows me to take a variety of projects that, some of which don't actually pay enough to cover all their costs. Some do and some pay more. But the fact that this is already tied into my role here as a professor helps to offset some of the costs.
Josh: We have some GA's that helped offset some of the costs. And that means that if a student shows up and just wants to like, 'hey, I don't know anything about research, but I'd like to learn.' Like I'll still pay them to come and learn. And eventually hopefully they'll get interested in, you know, they'll be...
Megan: On a project on a project. Get to actually like do the soft skills part of it.
Isn't that how Pythagoras would bring in his pupils is to pay them to, for him to teach them math?
Josh: We can't do that everywhere, like classes, you know, classes are classes. But the lab is this really innovative space where we get to do that kind of, we sort of get to flip the model a little bit because early on I recognized that we're not going to do anything in the lab that is tied to a class because students can choose to fail a class. It's their right, it's their class. Right? We can't choose to fail a client. So even though we have students like messing things up all the time, there's always like, me or another faculty member is always the backstop. Like nothing goes out of the, nothing goes out of the lab to a client that isn't, you know, professional ready to go.
You're the checkpoint for the student progress.
Megan: Yeah. Checks and balances. And on the flip side of that, the student gets this opportunity to understand what it's like to have that level of pressure. And a positive pressure, like understanding that you're going to provide a quality service, like we have these standards, it's going to go to a client in this way and they get a safe space to learn how to do that appropriately.
Josh: I think the really interesting, Megan, maybe you can tell me if I'm wrong about this because it's me talking about myself but I think it was like in many ways people like when people ask me about this and I'm like, well, we run it like a business and we're also teaching. But I actually think that's the way businesses should be run.
Josh: Like, the boards where I sit on, as you know, I sit on boards of of a nonprofit or in the business that I run outside the university. Like I'm always trying, like we're always doing professional development and this is just professional development in an education setting. So even though I say like the students are messing up behind the scenes, but there's the check in on the back end, I feel like...
Megan: That's real life. I actually don't disagree with you here. I'm not going to tell you you're wrong. [laughs]
Josh: That's actually how good businesses should run. So we really do try to set it up and I try to run it like... I don't treat it much differently than I would treat it if we were running a for profit research firm out on them. We try to mimic that as much as possible for the students.
So what students actually do come to the lab? You mentioned as part of classes, but it sounds like it's more applicable to real projects outside of class.
Josh: The social research lab is housed in the sociology department and the sociology department has an applied sociology curriculum all the way from our intro class to the end of our master's program, we have very intentionally structured, sequenced and designed the courses so that we're helping students to understand not which credential and degree they're getting, but what skills they're getting and how they can use them. How they show up on a resume, how they helped you to get a job, how they help you to advance in whatever career you're trying to go into. And so it's so right now a lot of what we get our sociology students, because that's the natural recruitment pool for us and they walk in with a pretty good understanding of what applied sociology is. That's pretty rare. I mean, most sociology programs in the state, in the country are not applied.
Megan: No. They're typically research based, academically focused. Not necessarily like, how do you use this in the real world beyond activism. This is one of the few programs that actually does
Josh: And that's super great. I'm happy for all those other programs.
Megan: Right. But this one, like the students come intentionally because they're going to walk away with skills beyond just, you know, how to write an academic article. And how do you, how to see the world differently.
Can you, can you define applied?
Josh: Yeah. Well I think I can define applied. [laughs]
Josh: The distinction for us is really between theoretical and applied. So are we writing and producing knowledge for other academics to consume or are we using the knowledge that we understand about the ways that groups and teams and organizations work in order to be able to produce insights that are actionable. And that's what I mean by applied. So when we talk about what we do in the lab, really what we're trying to do is give leaders insights and data so that they can act with confidence. So they can know like if I need to put that employee on an improvement plan because they're underperforming, they should be able to know that for sure, not just with their gut. So if we're doing an employee engagement survey, it's not just like, you know, here's a survey that we found online and we're going to administer and, you know, here's all the data and an excel spreadsheet we're doing the interpretation. Some light editorializing in those ways to help, you know, guide those decisions based on the knowledge that we understand about groups and organizations and teams.
I think you said it right up just a guidance like towards the trajectory of which they choose.
Josh: That's exactly right.
Can you provide some examples of some projects? Is that even the right word, projects?
Josh: Yeah, projects.
Small and large.
Josh: Yeah, well let's talk about, rather than small and large, I think the more relevant thing here is simple and complex. So there are some small projects that are fairly complex. Like for our local charter school, we developed a director of evaluation component that takes... So we do their parents' satisfaction survey, we do the employee engagement survey. We do a survey of their board and we map all certain questions on all of those back to the director's self evaluation of her own goals. So that's fairly complex even though we're talking about a small charter school and that's a multiple projects, it's sort of feed into one thing. So each one of those individual projects gets their own report within the board, gets this one overall thing about like, how is the director of this charter school doing for us this year.
Megan: And during the course of that process, the students are engaged with it in a way that encourages their critical thinking about like how to tie all the different surveys together in order to provide appropriate feedback for this client to be able to make a decision on the back end. Like we don't give recommendations...
Josh: We are certainly not firing.
Megan: Right. We wouldn't tell them like, 'get rid of her! Drop the hammer!" [laughs] No, but we definitely encourage, you know, the, the students sit down and they have, you know, with this particular project and there's multiple different moving pieces and then they have to aggregate it all together. Like there's a critical thinking and application component about like what does the client need to see on the bat, on the other side in order to make an educated decision about what they need to do. So there's that level of response.
Josh: It's really cool. I think as opposed to just doing something for a grade this like a lot of times and stuff we do does show up and realize it's a part of what I'm trying to do is both director and teacher is to close that gap for them. So we'll often find that we did an employee engagement survey. I'm usually the one who's doing the client management part and so I'm in contact with them. We find out that yes, somebody got fired.
Josh: And it's like that's a reinforcement back to the team of like, accuracy matters. The work we do here is important. Like, we can't get this stuff wrong because sometimes there's your real decisions being made. This isn't just like, oh you got three points wrong on that because you didn't use appropriate citation.
Josh: There's actual like consequences for some of those. Megan talk about the YAI (Young Adult Initiative) Project that we did for the center for congregations. I just gave an example of a local project. Maybe we can talk a little bit about a national one.
Megan: Yeah. So, we've done several projects with the center for congregations, but this one in particular was studying the...they have these 12 different innovation hubs and each one of them is responsible for measuring and implementing ways to connect young adults back into the church. And so we are, part of that project was we surveyed, everybody involved,
Josh: Everybody involved. Thousands.
Megan: In this project and it's multimillion dollar project. Not for us at all, but for them for sure. [laughs]
Josh: So there was a lot at stake.
Megan: There was a lot at stake because the point I'm making, so we surveyed all of them about this program and that the efficacy of this program, thoughts and beliefs about this program. And then additionally, we did interviews from key stakeholders from each of these 12 hubs and then we aggregated all the survey data and all of the interview data into...
Josh: Like 50 half hour and 45 minute interviews.
Megan: Yeah. We have a whole team involved. It wasn't just me but you know, so the team, you know, split it up and, you know, it was a very complicated longterm project. And then each one of those different 12 innovation hubs got their own report and there was a whole one. And then we went to Indianapolis and presented,
Josh: We didn't, you did.
Megan: I went to Indianapolis to present the results to this huge conference of this really important project and be able to tell them, you know, the things that they're doing well and the things that they need to pay attention to in the report. And then it started these really meaningful conversations for them around their next steps for this huge project. So like we were an integral part in the next phase of a really important project.
Josh: Yeah it was their midterm... Internally, the budgeted the line for a midterm evaluation but it was really just about learning. The whole idea was, 'what have we learned so far?
Megan: Right. It was benchmarking basically.
It's like a reflective practice of what's been going on.
Megan: Yeah. They wanted to see what had been learned so far and what needed to be done with what they've learned so far and then what they needed to measure in the future.
Josh: And it's a good example, I think of like what... there's a certain level of sophistication that goes on in the lab that is not just like me answering an email and then chatting with a client and designing something. We have a process where we take clients' objectives. We map them to a strategy and then we make sure that each one of those strategies has a point at some point in the data collection process where we can, we can say, okay, we're going to answer that particular question or meet that objective with this question on the interview guide. So the students or on the survey or whatever. And then when we write the report, we're going back to those original maps and the clients are signing off on us all the way along. So they know what's coming. The students are understanding exactly why they're asking particular question. When we write the report, where we're mapping back to those things and we're saying, okay, so we were supposed to evaluate this objective. We asked three different questions, you know, two on the survey and one on the interview to help, you know, meet that objective and here's what we found.
Megan: Right. So at every point along the process we're checking back in with the thing that they hired us first place. I think it's been a really important lesson for us in the last two years to be able to do this because we're taking on. We have the capacity to take on bigger and more complex projects, and so our ability to constantly like avoid mission drift - scope drift, it's not mission drift. We know our mission... Scope drift for these projects as it is crucial and it's crucial for the client because then we can continue to go back to this is the thing, you know, we're doing and the thing you asked for because they have a tendency to like, 'oh, well you can do that this, well, I want this, this and this.'
Megan: And so we initially put that process into place to sort of bring clarity for our students and to make sure that we had a better sense of all that as the lab was getting bigger and handling, you know, sometimes 10, 15 projects at a time, I needed a way to make sure I knew where we were with each step of the process. But what has happened is, that process of coaching clients through what they need and helping them to clarify their own objectives... We increasingly found our clients telling us that that has been the most valuable part of, you know, as much as the data's great in the analysis of super, they loved being forced to think very clearly...
Megan: About what they needed to measure.
Josh: Yeah. We're talking and coaching them through all those things.
So showing that audit trail and making them look back at the reasons why you even came to those conclusions, that's just as important to the actual conclusion.
Megan: It's very easy research project to get off track.
Josh: Sometimes they just come to us and like, 'I think I just want to know more about X.' I know when we say like, why, how does that impact your business? What are you going to do with, what are you going to do with?
Curiosity versus a rabbit hole, versus objectives.
Josh: And if it's just curiosity. That's fine. But they need to know it's just curiosity. Like, if they are thinking like, 'we want to know more about what motivates our employees because we need to know who's not working very hard,' I'm like, well those things don't match. You know, that input doesn't match that output. So we can tell you, we can ask questions about what motivates your employees, but if you really want to know why some of them aren't working hard, we need to ask other questions too.
Megan: Right. And it was really, is that key of like, what are you going to do with this? Because not only does it burn through their social capital with their, let's say it's the employees, but it also, if they don't have an objective for it, then they're just paying for research that's not going to go anywhere. And we are not as able to continue our focus with the project if we don't know what they're doing with it. Because we need to be able at the end of it to say, here's what we found. And then you said you were going to do this. Okay... So go do it. [laughs]
Josh: I'm Josh Packard, an associate professor of sociology and Executive Director of the Social Research Lab in the sociology department.
Megan: And I am Megan Bissell. I'm the project manager and lead researcher at the Social Research Lab.
Josh: The social research lab is located in the third floor of Candalaria hall on the Social Department. Any student from any discipline that wants to get involved in doing some of this hands on. If you like learning about how to do this kind of research that we've described, you can contact me directly actually, Josh.Packard@unco.edu, or knock on the door Candaleria at 2140 and there's likely to be a student in the lab at some point during the semester.
Megan: And for clients that are looking for a research projects to help them do program evaluations are just level up their businesses, lead change with confidence, we are available at https://www.unco.edu/social-research-lab. You can also contact Josh.Packard@unco.edu.
Josh: Don't judge us by our website. We're locked into the university template
Megan: We can't help that. Like, I really feel very strongly about this. Like, I actually design websites, it's so painful. Anyway, don't judge the website, but we do tell you what we do and see some of the other clients that we've worked with on that website and you can contact us there.
Christian Bjoerklund – The Professors Lab
Doctor Turtle – Database of Problems Rolodex of Lies