A Journey with CAUSE: Putting Positive Youth Development into Museum Youth Programs

By Angela Wenger and Susan Foutz
From ASTC Dimensions
March/April 2010

The New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences (the Academy) in Camden is now in the 17th year of its Community and Urban Science Enrichment Program (CAUSE). The program was created to address one of the Academy’s key mission elements: to provide educational and economic opportunity to Camden City residents.

Through the CAUSE program, local high school students receive training in marine science and biology, and work as mentors for younger students and as educators. To date, 150 students have participated in the program. The current demographics of the CAUSE teens are 41 percent African American, 54 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent of mixed backgrounds. By gender, 56 percent are female, and 44 percent are male. The overwhelming majority of participants are from low-income households.

What has become very clear to us over time is that an enrichment program to widen the pipeline to science careers for underrepresented youth is not enough. Building a solid pathway utilizing Positive Youth Development (PYD) strategies will lay the foundation for the journey toward individual success.

Positive Youth Development

The social and economic constraints of minority groups perpetuate educational and employment disparities, particularly when a student’s cultural life is not accounted for in the science education process (Seiler, 2001). Currently, approaches to addressing educational inequities have had little impact on reducing the achievement gap between U.S. minority and majority groups. As such, the number of U.S. middle and high school students from minority backgrounds who pursue science as a viable educational or career goal remains low. Their science experiences are not connected with how they envision their own futures, nor do they provide culturally relevant opportunities to promote their belief in themselves as empowered and capable of achieving (Basu and Barton, 2007; Tang, Pan, and Newmeyer, 2008). Voluntary, community-based programs that use science to build youth empowerment in a culturally relevant manner are needed to address this problem.

PYD theory and practice focus on meeting the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of youth through programs that have the following critical elements:

  • Positive relationships with peers and adults
  • Safe environments in which to learn and practice healthy behaviors
  • Building confidence and competence through challenging and meaningful work
  • Fostering voice and leadership opportunities
  • Allowing youth to be appreciated and recognized for their assets rather than their deficits.

Museum youth programs have the opportunity to combine all of these elements. Through PYD strategies, learning pursuits become personally relevant, build self-efficacy, and hone interests (Larson, 2000).

Museum programs: More than workshops

There are numerous informal science education programs serving youth facing multiple risk factors in the United States. Many of them provide hands-on, workbased experiences that prepare youth for higher education and the workforce through building knowledge, social competence, confidence, and 21st-century work skills (ASTC, 2001).

The body of work that addresses learning science in informal settings continues to grow. Studies generally support youth development programs as having a positive effect on academic outcomes, science interest and attitudes, or college attainment (Barnett, et al., 2006; Cooper, et al., 2002; Ellis, 1993; Lee, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Peternel, 2009; James, 2008; and Fadigan and Hammrich, 2004). The most salient aspects of these program studies have revealed that informal learning settings are supportive environments for authentic science learning, social interactions, and positive relationships with program staff. All of these aspects are fundamental tenets of PYD practice (Shernoff and Vandell, 2008).

Serving the “whole child”

The CAUSE program initially sought to build science engagement and literacy in order to increase the number of underserved youth pursuing science-related fields in higher education. However, we found that in order for the youth to truly find success, we would need to go beyond just exposing them to topics in science. The youth would ultimately need to 1) experience personal growth, self-esteem, and self-confidence; 2) develop life skills, including resiliency and social skills; 3) personally support and value diversity; and 4) have opportunities for leadership.

The Academy felt that our program would have to expand to address each participant’s individual developmental goals in order to meet the needs of the “whole child.” In response, we assembled a team that had a mixture of youth development and counseling expertise, science content knowledge, inquiry-based learning acumen, and career development experience. Most importantly, we insisted upon a 1:10 full-time adult-to-student ratio. This ensured that each teen could have the personal time required for tutoring, mentoring, and counseling.

We then added program elements to the existing framework to permit personal and team growth. For example, we incorporated more frequent feedback to the youth. At the beginning of the year, we worked with each teen individually to codevelop annual goals for both personal and professional growth. We then checked in with them at the midprogram point and also reflected back on their progress at the end of each year. In addition, we added more opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills through youth-driven committees. We also worked to make the program relevant to youth culture by communicating using digital technologies and incorporating peer-produced activities, and to our participants’ ethnic cultures through activities such as diversity awareness workshops.

Ultimately, we had to tackle the multiple external pressures that many of our youth face on a daily basis, as well as their social, cognitive, and emotional developmental needs, to allow successful science engagement to occur. External pressures can be daunting because they are often out of the control of the museum and the youth.

Youth who struggle with difficult home lives find that the Academy environment has supportive staff, safe facilities during times when risky behavior is most likely to occur, and rewarding activities that build self-esteem. We also provide access to caring adults, peers, and community resources to help them navigate challenging situations. For example, our biweekly, teen-driven rap sessions allow young people to discuss troubling issues in their lives, such as abuse and peer pressure, in a nonjudgmental environment.

We also support teens’ academic needs by connecting with teachers and school counselors and by providing tutoring support as needed. Finally, interns are paid for the work that they do. Many youth are required to contribute to the household income and cannot participate in volunteer programs.

Few museum youth programs have existed as long as the CAUSE program. Solid philosophical foundations, institutional support, program flexibility, and constant fine-tuning of the program have ensured its longevity.

Evaluation: Guideposts for the journey

We embarked on a summative evaluation process in 2007 to discover the long-term impacts of the CAUSE program as both a science enrichment and youth development program. We aimed to discern the effectiveness of the program model and components contributing to the program’s success.

We partnered with the Institute for Learning Innovation to conduct a two-phase study. Phase I focused on the long-term impacts of the CAUSE program. In all, 41 CAUSE alumni and 13 current participants responded to our survey. Findings indicated that the program is highly successful: Both alumni of the program and current participants indicated that the program had affected their views on science and teaching, academic path, career choices and workplace preparedness, community leadership ability, and life choices.

Key findings included:

  • Participants spent an average of 3.2 years in CAUSE and demonstrated a deep investment in the program, calling CAUSE a family and a source of support in their lives.
  • Alumni of the program were strongly committed to continuing their education: 100 percent of CAUSE seniors have graduated from high school, and 97 percent have undertaken some type of postsecondary education. (This is particularly notable given that all Camden high schools have dropout rates exceeding 50 percent and that CAUSE teens are recruited without regard to school performance.)
  • Alumni continued their involvement with science, education, and community service after they left the CAUSE program; 78 percent reported majoring in the sciences or social sciences.
  • The program’s greatest reported impacts were on participants’ workplace preparedness. The following workplace skills were rated highly: Work as part of a team, Interact with others in social situations, Engage in public speaking, and Be a responsible employee.
  • Aspects of the program related to respecting diversity were the next highest rated. The program cultivated a culturally diverse environment, and participants highly valued the lessons they learned from this diversity.
  • Participants attributed to the program a greater knowledge of their personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as a willingness to accept responsibility.
  • The CAUSE program positively impacted participants’ ability to continue their education by providing support for making education-related decisions and encouraging participants who did not think college was an option to pursue postsecondary education.
  • The program positively impacted participants’ awareness of careers and confidence in choosing a career.
  • The CAUSE program introduced participants to careers in science and teaching. The program also was a factor in participants’ awareness and appreciation of science generally.
  • Participants felt grateful for the mentoring they had received in the program, and desired to mentor others as a result.

Phase II specifically focused on the nature of the CAUSE program model. Using a case study design, the program model, values, and activities were investigated and described. The program was then compared to an existing framework from the PYD field, outlined by Milbrey McLaughlin in Community Counts (2000).

Using McLaughlin’s aspects of successful youth development (i.e., youth-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered), we found the CAUSE program to be closely aligned with this empirically based framework. It was apparent that the CAUSE model is largely effective, closely resembling a successful youth development program and achieving youth development.

Key findings were:

  • The staff values an asset-based, “whole-child” approach to youth development, taking into account the range of support and opportunities youth need to be successful.
  • The youth-centered aspects of CAUSE are evident in the program’s intentional approach to mentoring and supporting youth’s diverse needs.
  • Knowledge-centered aspects of CAUSE are reflected in the college-level marine biology instruction and knowledge that underpin the program.
  • Assessment-centered aspects are regularly incorporated at the program, staff, and youth levels. These include workshop evaluations, staff-student goal setting, youth journals, and teaching observation rubrics.
  • The community-centeredness of CAUSE is evident in the safe environment founded on family-like relationships within the program.

What we, and other youth development programs, have found is that the ensuing confidence and capacity the youth acquire truly leads to success in science, but more importantly, in life.

Angela Wenger is executive vice president and chief operating officer at the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences, Camden, and chair of the Mid-Atlantic YouthALIVE! (Youth Achievement through Learning, Involvement, Volunteering, and Employment) Network. Susan Foutz is research associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation, Edgewater, Maryland.


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About the image: CAUSE interns observe animal stratification and collect specimens off of the pier in Virginia Beach. Photo by Judie Weinstein