Evaluation is a set of approaches and techniques used to make judgments about the effectiveness or quality of a program or treatment; to improve its effectiveness; and to inform decisions about its design, development, and implementation (National Research Council 2010). For an informal STEM project, evaluation generally provides information that can guide the project, suggest how it might be improved, and provide evidence to demonstrate whether it worked as intended.

When evaluating informal STEM education experiences, four main kinds of evaluation are often considered: Front-end, formative, remedial, and summative. Front-end evaluation occurs during the project planning process. It often takes the form of audience research as it gathers data about the knowledge, interests, and experiences of the intended audience. Formative evaluation guides project improvement during the development process by gathering data about a project's strengths and weaknesses that can be used to make improvements. Remedial evaluation is carried out when a finished exhibition or program first opens to see how all the individual components work together as a whole. The purpose is to see if any small changes need to be made before beginning summative evaluation, which focuses on a project’s overall effectiveness and impact. Summative evaluation is particularly important in making decisions about continuing, replicating, or terminating a project.

How is evaluation different from research? 

The primary purpose of evaluation is to assess or improve the merit, worth, value, or effectiveness of a program or project and to advance the field (in this case, informal STEM education) by deriving lessons for funders, policymakers, or practitioners. Evaluation studies are typically conducted for clients and in collaboration with various stakeholders who are invested in improving or assessing a particular event, program, or activity. In contrast, educational research is typically designed to study a characteristic of learning grounded in an academic discipline such as psychology or sociology, or to study a particular theoretical framework. Research traditionally is geared toward knowledge generation for the larger field.

Want to learn more about evaluation? 

You’ve come to the right place! This site includes a wide range of resources that will help individuals learning about evaluation as well as those with many years of evaluation experience under their belts. To start, check out Chapters 1 and 2 of the Principal Investigator's Guide to Managing Evaluation in Informal STEM Education Projects for a more detailed introduction to evaluation and stories from practitioners about the interplay between evaluation and project implementation. We’ve also gathered a collection of some great guides and handbooks that provide overviews of evaluation as well as detailed guidance for carrying out an evaluation. Other links on this page will take you to information on choosing and working with an evaluator, developing an evaluation plan, locating evaluation tools and instruments, reporting and disseminating evaluation findings, and understanding where the informal STEM evaluation field is headed.  See what we have learned from evaluation and research in these summaries.