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Consortium bridges barriers|
By Celena Kusch
To increase responsive and effective community problem solving based on academic research, Penn State has created the Children, Youth and Families Consortium (CYFC), comprised of faculty members devoted to research and scholarship in this area.|
Since January 1998, Dr. Karen Bierman, distinguished professor of psychology at Penn State, and Dr. Mark Greenberg, Bennett Chair of Prevention Research in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, have served as co-directors of the CYFC Steering Committee and co-chairs of the consortium in its first year. They are enthusiastic about the new opportunities the group has opened for Penn State.
According to Greenberg, The CYFC is a quantum leap for Penn State in three ways. First, it creates an umbrella under which faculty from diverse areas throughout the University system can communicate and develop collaborative projects. Second, the consortium allows the University to strategically chart the course of how Penn State should touch the lives of parents and children over the next few decades. And third, the consortium will construct coordinated linkages between the University and Pennsylvania communities to work to improve the lives of children, youth and families.
Recently President Graham Spanier has been at the center of a push for a revitalized land-grant university, one that can translate university findings and apply them to community problems, Bierman added. Children, youth and families are a real strategic area for him and an ideal place to build that bridge between community and college. His idea was that the consortium would identify the Universitys existing strengths in the field of children, youth and families, then facilitate and foster more outreach, research, teaching and service related to those issues.
One of the first actions of the Steering Committee was to undertake a University-wide assessment of resources and strengths. As the CYFC found, Penn State has a history of strength in the field of children, youth and families. The University has more than 300 faculty members with allied interests in the field and offers more than 900 related courses across its colleges. External support for faculty research in this area has exceeded $52 million over the past five years. In addition, community-focused outreach initiatives through Outreach and Cooperative Extension serve more than 220,000 Pennsylvania youth each year.
To face these complex issues, meet the challenge of collaborating to form community-based solutions and fulfill ambitious institutional goals, the CYFC emphasizes the need for increased interdisciplinary activity.
Bierman explained the interdisciplinary vision of the consortium, saying, It is clear that people look at activities with an orientation toward different levels of analysis and ways of making interpretations, but when you are looking for solutions to complex problems like those facing children, youth and families today, there are advantages to combining many perspectives. In looking at the issue of youth academic achievement, for example, faculty from different disciplines might focus on the level of policy and government, the institutional level of schools and families or the individual level which might emphasize physical or cognitive development. Its very difficult for any one person to understand all the different levels. With an interdisciplinary approach, though, you get a wider perspective, which helps everyone to understand the issues more thoroughly.
Through its policies and practices, the consortium enables faculty, administrators and staff to move beyond the limits of a single disciplinary approach. Mechanisms for achieving this collaboration include funding for networking groups, proposal development and new faculty positions, as well as sponsorship of conferences, workshops and task forces.
After the first year, the CYFC seems on its way to reaching those goals. More than 300 faculty members and 90 extension agents and directors from throughout the University system have joined the consortium. Participants come from most of the Penn State campuses, from Continuing Education and Cooperative Extension centers throughout the state and from The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, the Penn State Geisinger Health System and The Dickinson School of Law at The Pennsylvania State University.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the first year was to bring people together, Bierman said. The CYFC working conference showed participants where they could find potential University connections and which topics could be explored. That conference served as a springboard for the formation of many interdisciplinary groups that are now working on research and outreach proposals.
Since October 1998, the consortium has funded 12 proposals for developing networking groups and five proposals for project development.
Our goal with the funding proposals is to give fast support for initial discussions to bring groups together to start planning interdisciplinary and collaborative activities, Bierman said.
Proposals receiving CYFC support focus on a variety of interdisciplinary topics: early developmental models of substance use and abuse, technology-based training programs for child care workers, culturally sensitive measures for ethnically diverse children and families, and community-university collaborations in the areas of quality day care and Head Start. Funded groups include partnerships among colleges and departments at Harrisburg, University Park and Commonwealth College campuses, The Hershey Medical Center, a variety of County Extension offices, Pennsylvania school principals, teachers, health care professionals, technology industry professionals and many more.
While building interdisciplinary networks among existing faculty, the CYFC also plans to facilitate hiring of new faculty to bring people into many different areas who are all working around four core children, youth and family themes: health/mental health care policies, impact and efficacy; the influence of biological factors on child development and parent/family functioning; welfare, social and educational policy effects; and competence promotion by bridging developmental research and practice.
The consortium provides an overarching structure to assess where hiring faculty will make an important difference in promoting research, teaching and service and outreach through all these dimensions of faculty work, Greenberg said. By hiring faculty together and building in cross-college and departmental connections among the new hires, the University will increase its capacity for interdisciplinary problem solving and community outreach.
The consortium has also established task forces to examine social policy, methodology and outreach activities. The Outreach and Extension Task Force is working to develop a strategic plan for the consortium within the outreach organization.
Bierman explained the importance of this group, saying, Outreach and Cooperative Extension has many resources available both in the means of delivering activities and education to communities and in the external partnerships and community relationships that enable successful outreach projects. Part of our plan is to make children, youth and family faculty researchers more aware of the outreach resources available to them and to help foster relationships between faculty researchers and extension activities.
In the future, Greenberg added, we look forward to meeting three really exciting goals for the consortium: to employ strategic hiring practices that bring to Penn State those faculty who can provide further strength in making this the premier University in the area of children, youth and families; to facilitate communication among the many faculty and staff engaging these issues throughout the Penn State system; and to truly join together communities in a collaborative process for promoting competencies in children and families.
Fueled by these high aspirations, even in its first year, the consortium has made an impact on the University and in the communities it serves.
Bierman reflected, I have really enjoyed the chance Ive had to meet more people in my first year and a half in the consortium than I have in my previous 17 years at Penn State. Theres something exciting about moving outside of your discipline. Ive noticed at consortium meetings that there is a joint purpose that transcends the different interests of the many groups and stakeholders in this issue. Theres a great range in the backgrounds of the people involved, even within the Steering Committee itself. Yet at Penn State, we are able to set aside personal perspectives to recognize our joint responsibility to create interdisciplinary solutions to the issues that face children, youth and families today. Few universities would make that kind of commitment and show that kind of support for a joint mission of strengthening our families and our communities.