Capturing the Impact of Community Engagement

Capturing the Impact of Community Engagement with New Mexico State

At our recent User Group, Steven Loring of New Mexico State University led a discussion on capturing the impact of community engagement via Activity Insight. Loring, the Associate Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station System at NMSU, is involved with the tracking and analysis of community engagement for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the university as a whole. Here’s a followup on his presentation, with additional discussion of the value of reporting impacts at the university level.

Background

New Mexico State University sits on a 900-acre campus and enrolls more than 15,000 students from 49 states and 89 countries. Founded in 1888 as Las Cruces College, the school opened the land-grant Agricultural College and Experiment Station in 1890. NMSU now offers more than 180 degree programs at five campuses. In 2015, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching selected NMSU to carry its Community Engagement Classification in recognition of the university’s commitment to community impact.

Telling a University’s Whole Story

Loring’s experience and commitment to both community engagement and reporting on impacts come from his work in ACES. Since NMSU is a land-grant university, ACES has reporting obligations to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as legislative bodies on which ACES relies for funding. Loring is committed to extending community engagement and impact reporting to the university as a whole, because “Provosts, presidents, chancellors, or whoever is the head of your university, needs to be able to shed light on what the university does for the community. University leaders need to go back to governors, legislators, funders and alumni with the stories of how we make a difference,” he explained.

Tracking activity and outcomes is baked into much of the teaching, research and outreach done by ACES faculty and staff, so it’s easier to gain buy-in for use of Activity Insight, particularly since there’s such a direct connection between impact reporting and funding for ACES. That connection isn’t as direct for other parts of the university.

In taking community engagement impact reporting to the university level, Loring has discovered that collecting data can seem burdensome to faculty in other disciplines. Engaging these faculty is part of Loring’s project to gain a 360-degree view of NMSU’s community engagement impacts.

Measuring the Impact of Community Engagement

When it comes to community engagement, there’s no one-size-fits-all metric for measuring impacts. Some impacts can readily be quantified and others can’t, but both matter, according to Loring. For example, a new integrated pest management program cut application of potato pesticides by 15 percent, resulting in an annual average savings of $2 per acre. Here, the outcome is measurable. But when a faculty member gives a talk about weather to fourth graders, there isn’t a readily measurable impact or outcome. Still, being the public face of the university has an intangible value, and may contribute to future outcomes that can’t be easily accounted for or predicted. “You’re comparing apples and oranges, but both apples and oranges are important,” Loring commented.

Loring is researching methods of collecting data on the less tangible impacts of community engagement via “ripple effects mapping.” For example, if someone from the university gives a talk that inspires someone to begin a project, and that project inspires someone to donate a truck to the project, and that truck helps the project accomplish a particular result, how can the university talk meaningfully about its role in this outcome?

Activity Insight as a Data and Reporting Model

Activity Insight has been an effective tool for reporting on community engagement and impact data for ACES faculty and staff, but as Loring takes his efforts to the university level, it has become clear that faculty data is just one part of the picture.

When it comes to impacts, where else might the university’s story be found? “An engineering intern building a bridge in a third-world country may just seem like an internship, but it’s also community engagement,” Loring said.

Loring serves on a subcommittee focused on issues surrounding data: where it exists within the university, how it’s structured, and how it can be brought together to build a more comprehensive picture of the university’s impact via community engagement activities. The road ahead includes determining how those data sets can be created in compatible formats and integrated with data and reporting from Activity Insight to tell the comprehensive story of the university’s impact via community engagement.

At land-grant universities, Activity Insight’s usefulness in capturing data and reporting on community engagement impacts is often first discovered and leveraged by Colleges of Agriculture. But as NMSU demonstrates, the story of community engagement is important across the university as a whole. Is your university measuring and reporting on its community engagement impacts? We’d love for you to share your story in comments.

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