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Puppet Shows and Program Evaluation: Leveraging University Partnerships to Increase Civic Capacity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Steven Perry, Leonard Chan and Alan Steinberg
March 15, 2020

Between January and May, 2019, a team of four undergraduates from Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership conducted an original program evaluation for the Houston Fire Department. Over the course of a semester, students attended a series of the department’s educational events and developed and implemented a protocol to measure the effectiveness of these public outreach activities. At the conclusion of the project, the students provided the department with actionable recommendations to improve the effectiveness of their programs. Through leveraging similar partnerships between public agencies and local universities, public agencies can receive accurate and quality feedback to improve their operations at a fraction of the cost of traditional external evaluations while providing valuable experiential learning opportunities for students.

As the largest fire department in Texas, and one of the largest departments in the nation, the Houston Fire Department (HFD) responds on average to a new fire or medical emergency every ninety seconds, culminating in more than 930 emergencies each day. In response to this significant demand, and as part of its mission to increase the safety of the community, the department regularly conducts outreach and educational events to inform the public about best practices in medical situations and for fire safety. These events, such as community speakers, safety demonstrations and fire safety puppet shows for elementary children, are designed to increase community resilience through education and awareness. 

While the department traditionally holds more than 200 of these events each year, little work has gone into investigating how well these programs accomplish their goals. While experts in public safety and fire suppression, the Houston Fire Department lacked many of the skills and resources needed to evaluate the performance of their public safety programs. As a result, the department had no systematic procedure to ensure the effectiveness of their programs or to identify areas of potential improvement. This limited the benefits the programs could provide to the local community, and inhibited the departments overall capacity to improve an important component of their public safety efforts.

Recognizing the need for external support, representatives from the Houston Fire Department met with staff from Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership in the fall of 2018 and designed a collaboration between the department and the university. A multidisciplinary student team would design a process by which the department could evaluate the performance of their public safety programs. By working directly with members of HFD’s public affairs office, the team would be able to independently assess the advantages and disadvantages of the department’s current programs, identify how to best measure the success of the programs and offer recommendations on how the programs could be improved.

Over the course of the spring semester, the student team developed a protocol to evaluate the effectiveness of the departments’ public safety programs, and used the protocol to perform an evaluation of seven fire safety puppet shows at local elementary schools. The team created a comprehensive report that included: a list of best practices for both public safety programs and program evaluation, a step-by-step guide to the evaluation protocol, the results of the puppet show assessment and a needs assessment identifying the types of programs that HFD should consider offering in the future. The team also held a series of presentations with members of the department to answer questions and to provide feedback and recommendations.

This collaboration resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship between the agency and their university partners. On the agency side, the department was able to access the skills and resources necessary to evaluate an important part of their public outreach mission. By incorporating the student’s recommendations and improving their public education and outreach programs, HFD can increase their overall capacity to make Houston a safer community. On the university side, students gained the opportunity to engage in real-world problem solving and to leverage the knowledge and expertise developed through their coursework in order to improve their community.

By creating similar agency-university partnerships, public agencies and students alike can benefit from a meaningful partnership of shared knowledge and experience. Moreover, such partnerships need not be limited to community outreach or emergency services. Many public agencies have regular operations or programs that are central to their mission, but lack the means, time or ability to effectively evaluate their success. Similarly, students desire the opportunity to gain experience in real world problem solving and to use their academic knowledge to make a tangible impact on their community. By leveraging the skills and expertise available at their local university, public agencies can gain important insights on how to more efficiently and effectively increase their capacity to serve the community.


Steven Perry is a PhD candidate in political science at Rice
University, and a graduate coach in Rice’s Center for Civic
Leadership. His research focuses on American political decision
making, and public policy. In addition to his research, Steven
teaches courses on the governments of the United States and Texas, as
well as courses on public policy and political campaigns.

Dr. Alan Steinberg is an Associate Director of Houston Programs and
Partnerships for Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, where
he leads the Houston Action Research Teams program. Alan holds a Ph.D
and a M.A. in Political Science from the University of Houston, as
well as degrees from Missouri State University and Texas A&M University.

Leonard Chan graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor of Arts in
political science, religious studies, and history, and he earned his
Master of Public Administration from University of Houston. Chan’s
previous experience includes serving as an analyst for Texas Sunset
Advisory Commission and Cedar Park Fire Department. He currently
chairs the Texas Center for Public Safety Excellence Consortium and is
the Houston Fire Department accreditation manager.

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