Penn State to mentor youth researchers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Encouraging youth to have empathy for others is the goal of a research initiative spearheaded by a graduate student in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The program — Youth as Researchers — gives teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 the opportunity to study a problem that affects them or their community, and then use that information to make a difference.

"Half of the world's citizens are under the age of 25. These youth are our future, so it's vital that we instill in them a sense of empathy for others as well as an interest in improving the world around them," said Jamison Malcolm, a master's degree student in Applied Youth, Family and Community Education in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education. "I believe this program — Youth as Researchers — is one of the many ways to do that."

Malcolm explained that the program was developed by researchers at the National University of Ireland, Galway, with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO. A major focus of the organization's mission is to foster leadership training and youth development in regions where it's most critically needed.

After learning about the success of Youth as Researchers in Ireland and its connection to UNESCO, Malcolm, who is also a UNESCO Fellow, turned to his faculty adviser, Mark Brennan, to see if they could bring the program to the United States. Brennan is UNESCO Chair in Rural Community, Leadership, and Youth Development at Penn State — one of just 18 UNESCO Chairs in the United States.

Working with Pat Dolan, UNESCO Chair and director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, Malcolm's vision is now a reality: Youth as Researchers will debut later this month in Philadelphia with approximately 30 participants.

Malcolm chose Philadelphia for the pilot program because of his prior experience working with HOPE Worldwide/Saturday Academy, a youth mentoring program based in the northern section of the city.

"It was an easy connection to make when I thought about the kids I used to work with and this program. There are many issues young people in that community face on a daily basis, such as gang violence, drugs and poverty," he said, adding that the first participants will be selected from the Saturday Academy group.

Malcolm and Erica Odera, a doctoral candidate in Agricultural and Extension Education at Penn State, will work with volunteer teachers to mentor the group through the research process, which begins with choosing a topic focusing on a community issue and ends with a plan for change, which will be shared with community leaders. They will meet weekly through June.

Along the way, there will be lots of data collection, discussion and friendly debate. The journey will culminate with the September showing of a documentary about the students' research at the Winchester Community Center in Philadelphia.

Malcolm anticipates that Youth as Researchers will become an ongoing program of the UNESCO Chair at Penn State, and he has a second session slated for Pittsburgh this summer. Students will be chosen through the Penn State Center Pittsburgh, an urban office of Penn State Extension and Penn State Outreach in partnership with Allegheny County.

Funding for the Pittsburgh session has been provided by Neighborhood Allies, a nonprofit community organization.

"To better understand youth issues, we know it's vitally important that our youth be authentically engaged and empowered so they can drive positive change in their communities," said Maureen Hogan, assistant director, Penn State Center Pittsburgh. "We are looking forward to bringing this international best practice in youth engagement to the Pittsburgh region this July."

More information about Youth as Researchers and the UNESCO program at Penn State can be found on the UNESCO Chair website at http://agsci.psu.edu/unesco/our-programs/youth-as-researchers.

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Last Updated April 20, 2017