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No longer hibernating, BEARS helps with education, social science research

Return of UND-based bureau will support College of Education and Human Development’s research mission

The College of Education & Human Development recently brought back the Bureau of Evaluation and Research Services, which was first established in the 1960s and funded by the state to serve as an evaluator of educational and human services programs. In coming back after a five-year hiatus, the bureau has a new acronym, logo and approach to its work. UND archival image.

As fall turns into winter around this time of year, most bears are preparing for their annual, seasonal slumber.

But at UND, BEARS – that is, the Bureau of Evaluation and Research Services – is roaring back to life after an extended hibernation.

First established in the 1960s, under a slightly different name, the bureau served then and serves now as a research hub based at the College of Education and Human Development, according to current Director Robert Stupnisky, who’s also the College’s interim co-associate dean of research and faculty development.

As stated on the BEARS website, the bureau’s mission is to provide state-of-the-art and affordable research, design, collection, analysis and reporting services to meet the needs of stakeholders in education, human development and related fields.

Cindy Juntunen

For decades, organizations would call upon BEARS’ predecessor to evaluate educational programs, for instance, and provide evidence-based reports that would help those organizations gauge their programs’ effectiveness, Stupnisky said.

When the bureau lost state funding amid budget cuts several years ago, resulting in that “hibernation” effect, the College took the opportunity to evaluate the bureau itself for effectiveness.

Now, with a new, catchy acronym and renewed sense of purpose, BEARS is ready to serve as important infrastructure for research across and outside of campus, said Cindy Juntunen, the College’s dean.

“The scholarship and grant productivity has really increased in our College over the last five years, and it became apparent that we needed to provide more support for faculty to support this increased activity,” Juntunen said. “We were able to identify resources within the College to support BEARS more fully now, and Dr. Stupnisky’s skills in research and team management were well-aligned with that faculty need.”

Under a catchy new acronym, the BEARS logo has come to life in UND colors. Image courtesy of Robert Stupnisky.

In with the new

So, what exactly has changed since the last time BEARS kept its den in the College of Education and Human Development?

According to Stupnisky, the former bureau was a one-person show for much of its lifespan. And, despite the amount of work that went into securing contracts, providing services and maintaining a College faculty position, the compensation for directors was “quite minimal.”

Rob Stupnisky

“So, the director position was fairly undesirable,” Stupnisky remarked. “Also, the bureau, despite its location in the College, didn’t really involve other faculty members, and it was very disconnected from the graduate curriculum and College overall.”

Despite these issues, Stupnisky maintains that the bureau had a good reputation across the state. Once it went away six or so years ago, people missed having an external entity that objectively procured data-informed feedback in education and human development, he said.

When Juntunen approached Stupnisky about resurrecting BEARS in 2020, the intent was to address critical issues that, in part, had contributed to its disappearance. That task led Stupnisky to revising the bureau’s mission in a way that reflected the College’s more recent programming initiatives, particularly in data analytics.

In addition to his role with BEARS and his interim co-associate deanship, Stupnisky is director of graduate certificates in learning analytics and quantitative research methods.

“We feel that there is a need, both locally and across the state, among people who are looking for evidence-based decision-making support through surveys, interviews and observations,” Stupnisky said. “But we are also very capable of taking a lot of already-existing data, cleaning it up for clients and helping them understand what that data says about their organizations and programs.

“We are well-positioned to use our background in data analytics, statistics and qualitative research, which we’re now teaching students in our College, to help people who are not yet familiar with data they collect.”

Rob Stupnisky and his counterparts at the College are intent on creating an environment for BEARS that involves faculty and students alike. By helping BEARS achieve its contract-to-contract objectives, students will have a solid understanding of research in the real world. UND archival image.

To be a trusted entity

When asked about the clients BEARS is trying to reach, Stupnisky told UND Today that he’s open to most opportunities that tie to the expertise found at the College of Education & Human Development. Education is obviously a focus, he said, but that can readily extend to public health, behavioral studies and “basically anything involving people and what they do.”

And the bureau has already taken on a number of contracts, both on-campus and out-of-state, in the relatively short time since its return. Stupnisky provided examples of evaluating a grant-funded internship program placing students who are studying mental-health fields in rural North Dakota, as well as performing a qualitative data analysis for research being done at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

In Illinois, BEARS is beginning the evaluation of an after-school program that was recently implemented in a school district there. Stupnisky said the bureau is positioned to serve as an external evaluator in scenarios – typically involving grant funding – that require impartial evaluation. Hence, Stupnisky is eager to spread the word that his group is proficient with research, methodologies and evaluation.

Rachel Navarro

“We’re just starting to really be able to market the bureau, so we’re hoping to be a trusted entity that people can look to for expertise and objective evaluation services,” he said.

Rachel Navarro, co-associate dean of research and faculty development, said she’s looking forward to seeing a balance between external contract work and serving the community, the state and UND’s stakeholders.

“While we still need those outside contracts, building BEARS as College research infrastructure means also having the resources and supports for faculty as they’re conducting research,” she said. “Being able to provide that support, to help faculty grow and achieve their own professional goals, makes this reincarnation exciting.”

Real-world experience for students

Such a prospect leads back to an earlier point, in that the College hopes to revise BEARS as much as revive it. As director, Stupnisky wants to have subject matter experts across the College regularly engaged with BEARS, as well as graduate students.

“We’re really intent on using the bureau as a training mechanism for graduate students in our College,” Stupnisky said. “We’ve been looking for ways to get students into real-world, hands-on research experiences, as there’s a big difference between example scenarios in class and getting real-world data that is much messier and complicated.”

Navarro agreed with her counterpart. She said the BEARS director has put together a collaborative process for the bureau that “scaffolds” in terms of experiences and mentorship.

“While Dr. Stupnisky organizes day-to-day operations and outreach as director, part of it is also getting our faculty tied into different projects where they can supervise graduate students at the doctoral and graduate level,” Navarro told UND Today. “Our hope is to eventually reach undergraduates through this research process.”

Through their participation in the work of BEARS, students can experience the direct application of analyses and interpretation that people and organizations can use, Stupnisky and Navarro said.

“The mentoring model we are using in BEARS, with faculty oversight of graduate research assistants, will introduce students to a wide range of research activities and skills,” said Juntunen, when asked how BEARS will enhance the College’s research mission. “In the long-term, I believe BEARS will serve as an important hub for evaluation services for grant proposals as well as statistical support for researchers across campus, including community partners.”