Penn State gives voice to youth through social science research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State undergraduate students, State College Area High School students, and youth from the Philadelphia Chapter of HOPE Worldwide/Saturday Academy will come together for the first Penn State Youth as Researchers (YAR) Exposition on Friday, April 13, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Ruth Pike Auditorium, Biobehavioral Health Building, University Park campus. The public is invited.

YAR is designed to give youth an opportunity to make a difference in their community by using research to promote social justice. Sponsored by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, the event will showcase the results of YAR research projects on community issues important to young people.

The YAR project is part of Penn State’s UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Chair in Community, Leadership, and Youth Development program led by Mark Brennan, a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

"YAR has grown and exceeded our expectations for empowering youth," Brennan said. "The program, and the amazing research conducted, helps ensure a youth voice in decision-making, problem-solving and efforts to achieve social justice. More importantly, these youth tell us what the issues are and how to address them. All this allows us to help empower youth as change makers."

Established in 2013, the Penn State Chair is one of only 18 prestigious UNESCO Chairs located in the United States, with a focus on empowering youth through leadership development, social supports, life skills training and civic engagement.

The Penn State project models an earlier UNESCO initiative developed at the National University of Ireland, Galway, under the leadership of Pat Dolan, UNESCO Chair and director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre.

Some of the topics important to teens and young adults — spanning the ages of 12-24 years — that will be presented by the YAR research groups include food insecurity, self-described identities, environmental sustainability and women's empowerment through education.

"YAR is about enabling youth voice," said UNESCO fellow Jamison Malcolm, a master's degree candidate in Applied Youth, Family, and Community Education and program manager for the Philadelphia YAR youth component. "When youth come to a conversation with their own data, it gives a megaphone to their voices."

Malcolm, along with UNESCO fellows Erica Odera and Kaila Thorn, both graduate students in Agricultural and Extension Education, have been mentoring the youth groups over the past year, teaching them the fundamentals of the research process and providing guidance.

Odera, who leads the undergraduate student groups, said the Penn State project is different from the one in Ireland because it includes a young adult component and it is not already part of a youth organization. Penn State YAR participants come from different colleges and many did not already know each other.

"This is an innovative way of approaching the idea of undergraduate research, since it is group-oriented, youth-driven and socially minded," said Odera. "Research is hard work, especially in a group setting where you are learning to work together, compromise and strategize together."

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia YAR group, who chose to examine racial discrimination among police in their neighborhoods, created a documentary film presenting their research process and findings to their community. The group will share the video with the other participants at the April event.

"The kids were ecstatic after interviewing police officers — they realized that the men they interviewed were just regular people in uniforms," Malcolm said.

The Philadelphia youth told Malcolm that they felt more confident and competent from participating in the project, and several participants expressed a desire to become researchers or investigative journalists so they could continue to address community issues.

Since the YAR project is voluntary and not graded, it provides a learning environment that takes the pressure off participants.

That is what Scout Cheeks, a senior majoring in international politics and criminology, liked best about it. "The program was completely student-run, which is something we don't see often in the academic environment, so being able to do research without having to worry about a grade was rewarding," Cheeks said.

"I wouldn’t trade the learning experience from the research for anything," said Bruce Gashirabake, a freshman from the College of Engineering. "Yes, there were failures. There were roadblocks. But all that was the crux of the learning experience."

Several Penn State students mentored the State College Area High School student participants.

Emir Myzabekov, a junior in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, said, "What really stood out to me was the fact that there are kids in high school who are passionate enough to want to make a difference in their community. I respect their diligence; it takes effort to participate in YAR, and it shows their maturity."

One former State College Area High School student and now Schreyer Honors College freshman studying in the College of Health and Human Development, Laura Guay, both participated in the YAR college group and mentored students from her alma mater.

"I was able to gauge and adjust the timeline of the high school group as a direct result of the progress I was making with my own project," she said. "In this way, I felt like I was helping to make more than just my project a success. I hope this program continues in the future."

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Last Updated April 16, 2018