'Extraordinary' prevention research team won’t let retirement slow them down

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With their retirement from Penn State just a few weeks away, Edward Smith and Linda Caldwell won’t be making an ordinary departure from their life’s work.  In fact, they aren’t leaving it behind … not just yet.

The University of the Western Cape in South Africa has appointed them as Extraordinary Professors in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences for their contributions over the past 16 years in helping to reduce substance abuse and sexual risk among South African teens. The nomination is a three-year, complimentary appointment giving them official status as faculty members.

“Making a difference in the lives of these kids is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” said Smith, prevention scientist and former director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center in the College of Health and Human Development.

Smith, along with Caldwell, distinguished professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and Human Development and Family Studies, were co-investigators on a project that adapted U.S. school-based programs for South African youth living in high-risk, low-income areas. 

“'HealthWise South Africa' started with a grant we got in 2000 from NIDA — the National Institute on Drug Abuse — to  address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa,” said Caldwell. “South Africa has the fourth highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world.”

The HealthWise program incorporates components of the evidence-based program, "Life Skills," and of another program which Caldwell developed called "TimeWise: Taking Charge of Leisure Time." TimeWise is based on the premise that if students are educated to engage in healthy leisure and avoid boredom, the potential for risky behavior is mitigated.

Both TimeWise and HealthWise teach adolescents how to manage their free time and make healthy choices through role-play and other engaging activities.

Smith and Caldwell’s collaboration with South Africa was an outgrowth of an initiative in Penn State’s Children, Youth and Families Consortium, led by Karen Bierman, to promote international engagement in adolescent healthy behavior.

That’s when they were introduced to Professors Lisa Wegner and Tania Vergnani at the University of the Western Cape and the international partnership worked together to culturally adapt the Western-based curriculum.

“With Drs. Caldwell and Smith as Principal Investigators, HealthWise has systematically evolved since 2002,” said Wegner.

After securing additional funding from NIDA, Smith and Caldwell were able to take the project from pilot testing to an efficacy trial involving over 7,000 youth in nine high schools to a translation study involving 10,000 youth in 56 high schools.

The HealthWise curriculum was first implemented in Mitchell’s Plain, near Cape Town in the Western Cape school district, in an impoverished and disadvantaged region formerly under apartheid rule where 1 out of 5 people are HIV positive.

“Currently, more than 64 high schools in South Africa have benefited from the HealthWise program. The ongoing contribution of Drs. Caldwell and Smith to build the research capacity at UWC has been significant,” said Wegner.

Throughout the project, Smith and Caldwell mentored Wegner and other Western Cape colleagues on how to train teachers and principals, evaluate performance, enhance postgraduate qualifications, publish findings and get access to local and international conferences.

“We have always been happy to help our international colleagues build capacity, apply it to their culture and take ownership of these programs as it helps us reach and improve outcomes for so many more children,” said Caldwell.

Smith and Caldwell received the Society for Prevention Research International Collaborative Prevention Science Award in 2007 and Wegner received the same award in 2014.

Later this year, the HealthWise program is scheduled for roll-out in four high schools in Lusaka, Zambia, through the University of the Western Cape and University of Lusaka.

Caldwell is also in the process of helping colleagues at the North West University, where she was appointed Extraordinary Professor in 2015, to develop a version of the program for schools in Pochefstroom, South Africa. The TimeWise project has been taught in Pennsylvania, Malaysia and China, and is being considered by the University of Iceland.

The two Extraordinary Professors plan to stay engaged with the HealthWise and TimeWise projects, at least for the next few years.

“We feel fortunate that we love the work we do so much, we want to continue it into retirement. Making a positive impact on these kids’ lives and developing lasting friendships with colleagues who strive to do the same, never grows old.” Smith adds.

Real retirement for the husband and wife team will just have to wait.

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Last Updated May 26, 2017