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Students apply research skills to make recommendations to Construction for Change and Microsoft

August 26, 2014

Founded in 2009, Construction for Change, a nonprofit based in Seattle, has built hospitals, schools and other infrastructure to benefit communities around the world.

But after the buildings were complete, CfC staff didn’t always have a great understanding of whether the buildings, often in remote areas difficult to travel to, were being used as intended by their partner NGOs. CfC enlisted the help of Jackson School students to glean more information and to make recommendations based on exhaustive research, including phone interviews with previous partners and project managers.

Since 2010, the Jackson School’s International Studies Program has collaborated with local clients to inform strategic initiatives with “Applied Research Projects.” While five undergraduate students and one graduate student compiled research for Construction for Change, another group was sponsored by Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Group, building a regional analytical assessment of cybersecurity and Internet governance issues in Southeast Asia.

Construction for Change Executive Director Shelby Stoner (’06) talks with students about their recommendations during a presentation for CfC staff.

Research Scientist Jessica Beyer, who was the faculty advisor for the Microsoft group, said the group worked closely with their client to be sure everyone had the same understanding of the scope of the project. The group used 17 indicators in each country – including population, literacy rate, e-commerce, cyber law and business regulation – to create a cybersecurity profile for 10 Southeast Asian countries. They also wrote case studies for three of the countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Erin English, a senior security strategist with Microsoft’s Global Security Strategy and Diplomacy Team (GSSD), under the company’s Trustworthy Computing Group, provided guidance to the students and was taken aback by the students’ writing and presentation skills. He said the group presented both qualitative and quantitative analyses, and in one instance, even created their own e-commerce benchmark, using novel research and analysis techniques. English added, “The e-commerce benchmark could have come from a Big 4 consulting firm. It was that good.”


Construction for Change Executive Director Shelby Stoner ('06) talks with students about their recommendations during a presentation for CfC staff.

Construction for Change Executive Director Shelby Stoner (’06) talks with students about their recommendations during a presentation for CfC staff.

Among other recommendations, students in the Construction for Change group proposed that CfC adopt a Theory of Change to help direct scarce resources and prioritize partner organizations. They also recommended creating a monitoring-and-evaluation framework to more fully evaluate the impact of CfC projects.

Rebecca Snyder, like the other students, was selected to participate in the research project after successfully completing the Task Force capstone project in winter quarter. “You don’t always get research opportunities when you’re not in the hard sciences,” she said. “This is great.”

Students contacted CfC’s partner organizations for previous projects to obtain data on indicators such as number of people served by the facility, ratio of men to women who benefit from the project, time to the nearest alternative, number of construction workers, and current condition of the facility. The students used one of CfC’s first projects – a school in Zambia completed in 2008 – as a case study. The school now serves about 700 K-7 students annually, and doubles as a gathering place for community meetings on weekends and evenings. While community perception of the project is today enthusiastic and positive, Jackson School students found examples of instances where project managers could have been better prepared. They also heard feedback that the plot of land chosen for the school was too small to incorporate a playground.

Tim Hickory, who started working for CfC as a project manager in 2011, was impressed with the thorough report the students put together. “They even tried to talk to a foreman in Liberia,” he said, referring to a school that CfC constructed. Hickory came to Seattle from Colorado specifically because he was interested in improving people’s lives through construction.

CfC Executive Director Shelby Stoner, who graduated with a B.A. in International Studies from the Jackson School in 2006, said a true measure of CfC’s success is whether the facility they built is having an impact on the community in the years after CfC leaves. She said it made a lot of sense for CfC to partner with the Jackson School because of students’ excellent research and analytic skills. “From our perspective, it was a great fit and we’re looking at ways we can follow up and implement the recommendations,” she said.

Beyer, faculty advisor for the Microsoft group, said it’s incredibly rewarding to work so closely with the students and to see them developing their research skills. “You’re always trying to figure out how much and where to push the students,” she said.

Associate Professor Sara Curran, director of the International Studies Program and faculty advisor of the Construction for Change group, said she would like to expand the program to include more students. She said the research the students provide is tremendously valuable and is much more affordable for companies than hiring a consultancy.