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Friday, July 06, 2012
School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences Assistant Professor Laura Wray-Lake received a grant of nearly $700,000 from the John Templeton Foundation to investigate character and civic engagement among children and adolescents. The research team also comprises Amy Syvertsen from the Search Institute and Aaron Metzger of West Virginia University.
The three-part study aims to first discern how children understand civic engagement and character. The team will conduct one-on-one interviews with children at each of the research team’s three sites.
“Because young people cannot engage the same way adults can in the public arena, we define ‘civic engagement’ as any behavior which contributes to the greater good of society,” Wray-Lake said. “This can include any positive, helpful behavior, from taking out the trash for a neighbor to community activism.”
Based on its findings, the team will next design a survey. This phase will identify whether and how civic engagement and character can be measured in childhood. The team will also look for developmental patterns in civic engagement and character.
The third part of the study will be a larger qualitative study of youth and parents, which looks at how a young person’s context—family, neighborhood, peers, and school—affects their character, competencies, and level of civic engagement.
Wray-Lake’s past research has looked at how the messages youths receive from parents, as well as the context in which they are received, affect their likelihood of being civically engaged.
“A lot of parents think that they are conveying messages about citizenship and character, but we have found that these concepts best translate to kids if they are very specific and if adolescents accurately hear what parents are saying, such as discussing that it’s important to help people, and why,” Wray-Lake said. “It sounds obvious, but teens have to correctly interpret parents’ messages before they can impact their own values and behaviors.”
The research project will have three real-world applications: The survey will be dispersed among youth workers to be used as a tool to promote civic engagement and character. The team will also host an educational webinar for parents that will teach them tools for encouraging civic engagement and character in their children. Finally, the project will establish a publicly accessible website that will share the team’s findings. But the project will also have lasting, less-tangible outcomes:
“The enduring impact of the project will consist of encouraging character strengths and engaged citizenship in young people, which has positive implications for the well being of the youth themselves and for democracy as a whole,” Wray-Lake said.
Founded in 1987, The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research devoted to science and answering the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.”
The entire project is scheduled to take three years, beginning in the fall of 2012. The team will post its results on its research website during the 2013-2014 school year.
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