Youth-Nex Awards Grants Promoting Positive Youth Development

Ellen Daniels

Youth-Nex, a center based at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education that promotes effective youth development, has awarded $153,715 to four U.Va. research teams. They will study a range of youth development issues, from how innovative school architecture can combat obesity to increasing bullying awareness through student video production, to helping middle-schoolers tackle a local environmental problem, to understanding teen drivers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Youth-Nex has seeded University faculty research promoting positive youth development for three years. Patrick Tolan, the center’s director, said the projects were also chosen because of their collaborative nature and potential for growth. “We are already seeing external funding applications growing out of the first rounds,” he said. “We think there is great potential for similar success from this excellent set of seed grants which also represent multidisciplinary efforts across U.Va.”

Funded Projects:

“Impact of School Architecture on School Practices and Healthy Eating”

Researchers are working with architects to create a school environment that improves student well-being. Dr. Matthew Trowbridge of U.Va.’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Terry Huang of the University of Nebraska’s College of Public Health will evaluate whether innovations such as a teaching kitchen, soil lab and nutrition resource library will impact the eating behaviors of school children at Buckingham Elementary in Dillwyn.

The researchers collaborated with VMDO Architects of Charlottesville to develop a set of healthful eating guidelines for school architecture based on public health evidence and theory. The set of specifications call for innovations like kitchens conducive to preparing fresh and organic food; design that encourages relaxation and socialization at meal times; and signage and programming that reinforce nutrition education.

“We wanted to create optimal school environments to promote healthy eating behaviors,” Trowbridge said. “Opportunities to directly concentrate on children’s learning environments are long overdue in the fight against obesity, which has been a priority public health issue for 20 years. But prevention has met with only limited success.”

Funding will allow the researchers to evaluate application of the recommendations in a real-world environment for the first time at Buckingham Elementary this fall.

“School-based obesity prevention programs have received considerable attention, but the physical environment of the school has not,” Trowbridge said. “This also provides an opportunity to pilot the concept of linking obesity prevention to green buildings. This focus on the environment and policy-based intervention will be critical in making a significant impact on childhood obesity trends.”

To effectively implement these environmental components, the researchers and VMDO worked together as the school was rebuilt from the ground up. Maggie Thacker, VMDO’s director of marketing and business development, said that their objectives have been multifaceted. “Our goal is to embrace the whole child,” she said. “Environmental stewardship, eco-literacy, sustainable design, health and well-being, movement and activity – each of these educational opportunities are interwoven throughout the school’s interior and landscape, making a rich experience for students and teachers alike.”

Throughout the site, Thacker said, the school fosters teachable moments within the landscape, boasting walkable paths; vegetable, fruit and nut gardens; science garden labs; a composting station; and a “frog bog,” to name a few of the school’s features.

“There is a long history in developmental psychology research that the role of classroom design can impact social behaviors,” Trowbridge said. “This project takes well-established theoretical frameworks from these educational research fields and applies them to health promotion.”

Researchers hope the project will encourage teachers, staff and the community to engage more deeply in teaching children about healthful food and eating. They also hope to inspire more collaboration of this type.

“It’s an amazing building and it’s an incredibly positive statement of hope and investment for kids in this rural school district who typically haven’t received this kind of support,” Trowbridge said. “Youth-Nex has allowed for a real-world implementation and evaluation of these highly collaborative and cutting-edge guidelines.”

“Promoting Positive Youth Development Through Homegrown Video Production”

Michael Kennedy, an assistant professor at the Curry School, will instruct and guide students in producing their own bullying prevention videos. He hopes to help students at Charlottesville-area schools to both understand themselves and to understand themselves as agents of change. Kennedy also said he hopes the students will progress in what are known as the “5 Cs” of positive youth development – competence, confidence, connection, character and caring.

“We hypothesize that if we get that movement toward greater understanding in caring, competency and the rest of the Cs, it will be captured on video, because the medium is so powerful,” he said.

An educator and a filmmaker, Kennedy ultimately also predicts a change in the students’ understanding of bullying. “A more sophisticated video shows deeper understanding of the issue,” he said. “When students make progress in each of the 5 Cs, it can result in a sixth C – ‘contribution.’” Kennedy, along with education professor Dewey Cornell, are co-principal investigators of this project.

“Engaging Students in Environmental Service: Development and Early Phase Research on a Community Service Learning Intervention”

When educators Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Eileen Merritt had the realization that kids were eager to be engaged in important problems outside of school, they devised a plan to take them outdoors.

The researchers will work with a group of middle-schoolers at Albemarle County’s Community Public Charter School tackle a local environmental problem selected by the students.

“Many students do not have opportunities to spend time outdoors engaged in solving real-world problems,” said Merritt, whose career has focused on helping connect students with nature.

The goal will be to increase the children’s interest in science, knowledge of the environment and civic engagement through participation in a community service-learning project, Rimm-Kaufman said. Additional expertise in planning the curricula will come from Karen McGlathery, an environmental scientist in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“We want students to choose from a set of environmentally oriented projects and engage in those projects with supportive adults, and see the link between their actions and a change in their community,” Rimm-Kaufman said. One idea is to help provide a natural buffer between pollutants from an airport runway and the nearby Rivanna River.

Ashby Kindler, the principal of the charter school, and science teacher Kathryn Durkee will also collaborate.

According to Rimm-Kaufman, “This grant aligns well with the school’s mission to reach students who may be disengaged from school and help them become independent thinkers, problem-solvers and active citizens.” Rimm-Kaufman is principal investigator for this project, and Merritt is co-investigator.

“Understanding and Supporting Safe Driving of ADHD Teenagers with Auditory Feedback”

A systems engineer and cognitive behavioral therapist are joining forces to design a tool that mitigates driving distraction through a Wii-like device that tracks eye, body and head movement.

Co-principal investigators Nathan Lau and Dr. Daniel Cox will seek to help adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to drive safely by creating a negative feedback loop that detects driver distraction.

Lau, of the Department of Systems and Information Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said that research in psychology, engineering and driving alone have contributed much independently, but the areas are not well integrated. There is also a lot of research being done on distraction, he said, but not much on device building. He envisions a time when these youth will not have to rely on medication.

The Youth-Nex funding continues Cox’s research on ADHD and driving, adding a new engineering component with the “Wii-like” device that displays feedback for the drivers.

“This is an opportunity to collaborate to see if you can develop a tool or refine a tool through innovation,” Lau said. “We can be a bridge between what psychologists know and how engineers use technology.”

According to Lau, there are alarms to help truck drivers stay alert, but there aren’t tools to help youth and specifically ADHD drivers. “The trick is also not to be too intrusive or annoying,” he said.

This story appeared in UVA Today.