March 24, 2016

$1.2M gift launches research program to better serve youth

girls doing science projects
Dani Corona/College of Human Ecology
"Smart Clothing, Smart Girls" middle school participants work on design projects.

With the newly formed Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), Cornell researchers are joining with the New York State 4-H program and the 200,000 children and teens who participate annually to foster groundbreaking research on youth development.

PRYDE will lead projects in real-world settings and seek to improve community-based youth education programs from the ground up.

Funded by a three-year, $1.2 million startup gift from Rebecca Q. Morgan ’60, PRYDE staff and faculty affiliates plan to create a hub for serving young people’s developmental needs in four theme areas: life purpose, healthy transitions into adolescence, intergenerational connections and productive social media use. PRYDE experts will conduct translational research in close collaboration with 4-H staff and youth across New York, accelerating the speed at which evidence can be applied to new and existing programs while also sparking young people’s interest in social science.

Based in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) in the College of Human Ecology, PRYDE is believed to be the first university program in the nation to apply innovative social science methods to strengthen 4-H programs.

“Rigorous research is needed to help identify and recognize the specific ingredients of youth programs that have the best impacts on youth,” said Anthony Burrow, PRYDE director and assistant professor of human development. “Essentially, ensuring that research and evidence-based programming are part of these programs enables others to know that the good work they are doing is producing the outcomes they are striving for.”

PRYDE will rely on a community-based participatory research model developed and used by BCTR researchers for more than two decades. Tapping a Community Engagement Work Group comprising 4-H educators and field staff, campus-county teams will identify research needs, design studies and interpret and disseminate data through a statewide “research ready” network. They hope to fill knowledge gaps on how to best nurture healthy youth development through 4-H and other out-of-school programs. Training to build research literacy, as well as an annual Youth Development Conference for off-campus 4-H staff to hear the latest evidence from Cornell researchers, will deepen campus and county connections.

kids shooting rocket
4-H members participate in the "Have a Blast with Rocketry" program.

“The opportunity to apply practices with a strong evidence base, and work with faculty who can evaluate current efforts and identify what’s working and why, has potential to make a huge difference. This work team will create a space for real engagement and shared program development,” said Andrew Turner, PRYDE advisory committee member and state leader of the New York State 4-H Youth Development Program, part of the BCTR and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

PRYDE leaders selected the program’s research priorities based on input from 4-H educators, as well as the potential to address urgent needs of young people. Burrow, who studies human purpose and identity, will examine how these developmental assets can be woven into youth learning and engagement programs. Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development who has previously used the 4-H network to test expressive writing interventions for teen girls, will lead research on how to support the well-being of children as they enter puberty.

Social media, often seen as a danger to youth, will be studied for its potential to connect them to each other and their communities in a project led by Elaine Wethington, professor of human development and of sociology. Karl Pillemer, BCTR director and Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development, will test new models to bring together people of all ages in meaningful activities.

In its work, PRYDE seeks to expose adolescents to cutting-edge human development research and train future generations of youth development specialists. Cornell undergraduates are being recruited for the first group of PRYDE Scholars, who will be mentored by faculty in youth development research. PRYDE plans to hire graduate research assistants and will also host campus visits and create other outlets for 4-H members to observe social science research firsthand.

For these reasons, the program “greatly piqued my interest,” said Morgan, a donor with a longstanding interest in youth development. A former California state senator, Morgan participated in 4-H while growing up on a Vermont dairy farm and briefly served as a 4-H agent in Tompkins County after her Cornell graduation. At cattle shows and fashion displays and as president of her local club, Morgan credits 4-H with teaching her everything from accounting to leadership to dressmaking.

“I am most excited that PRYDE is taking science and putting it into service to help young people,” Morgan said. “4-H is the largest youth organization in the U.S. and it offers a readymade network for translating Cornell research into effective youth programs. The program is positioned to become a national leader on this topic.”

PRYDE will officially launch with a campus panel discussion May 5, featuring prominent researchers and practitioners discussing the future of translational youth development research. The event will be live streamed for the public.

“The generosity of Becky Morgan will allow us to speed up the process of uniting science and service in youth development, bringing world-class researchers together with expert practitioners to create a better world for young people,” Pillemer said. “It is rare when a gift can have such far-reaching consequences.”

Sarah Thompson is a freelance writer.