Friend of SparkAction Named as OST Emerging Scholar
Tom Akiva, pictured above, is in his final year of a Ph.D. program in Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan. He is also a Senior Manager at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. Tom has been a school teacher and summer camp director, and has worked with numerous out-of-school time staff on programmatic and organizational topics. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and three daughters.
1. What drew you to OST research?
I worked for several years at a summer camp for teens, first as a counselor and activity leader, then for four years as director. This was the HighScope Institute for IDEAS, a four-week sleep away camp. The teens were very diverse, as some were international, and many were economically disadvantaged, attending on full scholarship. We ran educational workshops in the arts and sciences as well as great camp events like evening programs, room groups, and work crews. I was amazed at the benefits this program seemed to produce. Kids who were not engaged in school would become 'on fire' for learning in ways I never saw in educational contexts before. It was common for kids to develop this "I-can-do-anything" attitude in the rich social environment that camps produce. And these effects weren't fleeting; a quasi-experimental study found that program participants had higher post-secondary attendance (mostly college) than youth in a control group.
I later worked as a teacher for a few years, but when I began pursuing my PhD I was pulled back to OST. I believe there are huge educational and developmental opportunities in OST to be realized. Researchers in psychology and learning sciences are starting to pay more attention to OST contexts, which is great.
2. Please describe your work at the Weikart Center.
Specifically, can you describe your work assessing program quality with the Youth Program Quality Assessment (PQA) tool? I helped develop the Youth PQA in the late nineties at HighScope Educational Research Foundation. After teaching, I went back to that group, which had become the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality (now a division of the Forum for Youth Investment). We designed the Youth PQA to describe and assess effective youth work practices. The instrument was designed to produce reliable scores by outside assessors, but our overarching goal was always to create tools to help improve youth work practice. So we created a training program with the Youth PQA in which program self-assessment was at the heart. Training also included youth worker trainingsto help people understand and carry out the practices described in the Youth PQA. I worked with many of the initial network sites (i.e., collections of youth programs) establishing assessment and improvement systems with the Youth PQA. Now, similar projects are being carried out all over the country.
3. Please describe your current research.
My dissertation investigates youth psychological experiences of involvement in OST programs--namely cognitive engagement, sense of belonging, and associated contextual factors. Using a large data set (over 1100 youth survey responses nested in 120 program observations in 65 sites), I found that in activities where staff employ active skill-building practices (challenging youth, pushing them to develop skills), youth report higher cognitive engagement. In programs where staff exhibit welcoming behaviors, youth report higher belonging. These relationships vary somewhat across program types. I also found, unsurprisingly, that those youth who attend more tend to report higher cognitive engagement and belonging. This is a cross-sectional study so I can't determine causal direction but I suspect it's iterative, with both staff and youth contributing to effectiveness of the program.
In a separate study, I am investigating the specific technique of involving older youth in program governance--youth deciding what a program offers, who is hired, how money is spent, etc. Youth governance appears to be positively associated with several social emotional skills such as empathy, communication skills, and problem solving.
4. What’s next in your work?
I plan to continue to investigate youth psychological experiences in youth programs. That is, I want to further examine the thoughts and feelings youth have while they are participating and how these in-the-moment experiences relate to longer term participation and developmental outcomes. I also plan to work on establishing stronger causal links between participation and outcomes. A challenge to this is that field experiments with randomized treatment and control groups are the best way to establish causality but this is not possible or practical in most youth programs--youth attend voluntarily and there is usually not oversubscription. So, I wish to investigate the consequences of participation through quasiexperimental, longitudinal work. I'm currently working on a proposal to investigate consequences of involvement in youth governance activities.
This interview was conducted by and published by the Out of School Time (OST) Special Interest Group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). It was featured in their Fall 2011 OST SIG newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.