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Extension > Youth Development Insight > October 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wake up to the expertise of older youth

Beki-Saito.jpgIn preparation for a workshop I did recently on mentoring teenagers, I googled "mentoring older youth" to learn about current research and practice. Virtually all of the links that came up made the assumption that older youth were troubled youth, or high-risk youth, e.g., "juvenile delinquents," pregnant and parenting teens, youth in foster care or with parents in prison. What is that about?!

It's ageism, plain and simple. There is such a pervasive belief that teenagers are not to be trusted, are "screwed up," are something to be avoided or "dealt with" rather than that they are creative, ever-changing, exciting, cool people with strengths and expertise. You see this not only in the research that is conducted but also in the news, movies and TV, conversations with friends, family and neighbors, as well as where we spend our public dollars (youth intervention versus youth development).

Gisela Konopka and other youth development proponents enable us to see experimentation, creative license, struggles with varying values, ideas, and perspectives as necessary for healthy development.

youth-interviewing-youth-in-Minneapolis.jpgSo next time you see a young person doing something that makes you uncomfortable, remember that trying on new identities, unusual hair styles or clothes, bumping up against current values and cultural norms is expected, normal and healthy for young people. It's how we figure out who we are, what we stand for, what matters to us, what we're good at and what we need to get better at. Ask yourself whether the behavior is merely troubling to you, or indicative of a troubled person. If the former, dig deeper into your own value assumptions; if the latter, and you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with this person, state what you see and feel and ask how you might help.

Come on people, fellow researchers, practitioners and policy-makers: Let's invest in the healthy development of young people and let's make room at the decision-making table for people of all ages. Young people have such great insights, connections, knowledge, and expertise. Teenagers can be great researchers, media experts, youth development and engagement experts, marketers of youth programs and opportunities, friends and mentors. For those who work in youth development, there should be no end to the ways in which young people's expertise can be utilized in doing our work. How can you create opportunities for youth leadership?

-- Rebecca Saito, Senior research associate

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Great expectations are good predictors of science careers

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgWhen young people are asked, "What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old?", it turns out that their responses are quite accurate predictions of their college majors.

A 2006 study of young adolescents' career expectations, led by researchers at the University of Virginia, investigated whether 13-year-olds with an expectation for a science-related career obtained science degrees at higher rates than 13-year-olds without this expectation. They do - or at least they did - in a national sample of youth studied during the years 1988 through 2000, and published in 2006.

The study factored in differences in academic achievement, academic characteristics, and demographics, and followed young people living in the U.S. over time. Young people were asked to select one employment option from a list (only one!) and their career expectations were sorted into two groups -- science-related and non-science.

The science-related careers were further separated into "life" sciences and "physical/engineering" sciences. The young people who expected careers at age 30 in the sciences were nearly twice as likely to graduate with a life science college degree, and more than three times as likely to earn a physical/engineering science degree as young people who did not see themselves in science careers. While academic achievement in eighth grade math had a role in predicting later careers in physical/engineering science degrees, math scores were not a predictor for careers in the life sciences!
But expectation dominated, even in the physical sciences. "An average mathematics stem.jpgachiever with a science-related career expectation had a higher probability of earning a baccalaureate degree in the physical sciences or engineering than a high mathematics achiever with a non-science career expectation." In other words, academics matter but they were not the strongest predictor for future engineers.

While initiatives to encourage youth pursuit of science careers may focus attention on eighth grade algebra, these data support that there is more to a future than a good grade. We knew this, of course, but it sure helps make the case for a theory of change when data support what we know.

How can we use this knowledge as we partner with formal educators? This is an important question for our work. 4-H is asking the "expectation question" of youth in a national study in order to compare 4-H youth to youth who are not participating in 4-H. Clearly, how we plan and design nonformal science programs matters, and the stakes are very high.

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Access and the opportunity gap

Josey-Landrieu.jpgIn his inaugural address a few weeks ago, the new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler called upon us to move the university forward in terms of research, access, and excellence, using the word "access" 13 times.

Issues of access apply to out-of-school-time learning, as well as higher ed. Listening to the latest reports and events in our field have sparked important questions for me about access to positive educational opportunities for all young people.

How can we ensure that all youth (especially those who need it the most) have access to well structured and well implemented programs? How can out-of-school time (OST) programs connect youth with positive learning opportunities? How can we as youth development scholars and practitioners level the playing field for all youth?

For OST opportunities to be effective they must be well structured, staffed by caring adults, and provide youth with a real opportunity to contribute and be engaged in their communities. Research shows that certain conditions are necessary in order for OST programs to have positive results on the lives and opportunities of young people. However, access to well structured and well implemented programs is not equal for all youth. Scholars have talked about this issue in terms of an opportunity gap; it's not always about the difference in achievement scores but it's often about the access to resources, caring adults, and positive educational experiences where the gap is widest.

youth-pic.jpgIn a recent commentary in Education Week, H. Richard Milner of Vanderbilt University discussed the role of OST programs in helping close this opportunity gap. The following quote caught my attention, especially the words "developing evidence": "I would urge [OST] programs to continue developing evidence of their usefulness, not only related to academics but other important skills necessary for students to succeed in society such as social skills, study skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and perhaps most importantly social justice orientations and skills. It is critical that students feel empowered to change and challenge negative and inequitable situations that show up in their communities."

Throughout the commentary, Milner provides further considerations for our practice in youth development. He urges us:
  • To look at the opportunities and resources that youth have or not in order to address their needs.
  • To ensure that youth workers are trained to ensure that active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expands horizons are actualized in afterschool programs.
  • To have critical conversations about disparities based on race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. Otherwise we will continue to see huge disparities among the youth we serve.

Here is my call to action: How do we ensure equitable access to high-quality programs? How do we make sure that all youth can enjoy the benefits of these programs? Could we suggest additional considerations to Milner's list? In what other ways can practitioners, scholars and funders level the playing field?

-- Josey Landrieu, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is all this online socialization a good thing?

Trudy-Dunham.jpgTeens are texters. They almost all have cell phones, which they are more likely to use to text than call their friends, on average about 50 times a day. They are heavy users of the Internet, and of social networking sites (SNS). Is all this online socialization a good thing?

We've heard about the downside. The driving while texting or talking on a cell phone. The cyberbullying. Sexting. The idealized presentations of self in online profiles. The continuous partial attention that keeps us attentive to messages from our online friends while giving less to the teacher, hurting school performance.

The best answer to my question might be 'it's complicated'. Because there really are some great benefits that offset the risks to all this online socialization.

In a recent research study by the Girl Scouts, more than half of the girls surveyed indicated that their online social networking helped them feel closer to their friends. About half indicated that social networking had gotten them more involved with causes that they cared about. A study at Michigan State University found that college students with low self-esteem who were active SNS users felt more engaged with their university community than those who used SNS less often, and student SNS use strengthened their existing offline relationships. Research by Larry Rosen found that youth who spent more time on SNS were more empathetic toward their friends, in both online and offline interactions.

These are just a few of the recent studies that demonstrate that stronger, positive relationships and community engagement accrue to those who use SNS.
Do the benefits of social media and online socialization outweigh the risks? I think so. Our cell phones and the Internet are not going away. But our close friends are. Research by Robert Wilson noted that in 2004, American adults reported that their confidants (those people with whom we feel comfortable discussing matters of importance) had dropped from about 3 people to 2 over a 15 year period, a decline of nearly one-third. And about 25% of those surveyed reported they had no confidants.

A Pew Internet study, based on data collected in 2010, found similar numbers but a different trend when compared with their 2008 data: American adults were reporting slightly more confidants, and fewer reported that they had no confidants. The Internet users had more confidants than non-Internet users, and SNS users had more confidants than those who used Internet but not SNS.

This research is based on American adults, not youth, but adolescence is when many of us learn how to be in a friend relationship and how to be part of a community. Today's community, and society at large, could benefit from a greater abundance of empathy and engagement in its citizens. And I've never met anyone who couldn't use a true close friend and confidant. Have you?

Is all this online socialization a good thing? What do you think? What are you noticing in your work with youth?

-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow
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