Advancing Student-Led Research: The YARI Project

YARI cohort

The Youth Action Researchers at the Intersection (YARI) project supported a cohort of youth researchers who are twice-exceptional in that they identify as being from both a marginalized group (race/ethnicity, LGBTQ, low socio-economic status) and possess a learning difference (ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, executive function issues).

The project provided a robust structure of supports to enable youth researchers to substantively investigate teaching and learning issues that have emerged in their own experiences, and then communicate findings to various audiences to advance the field’s responsiveness to students like them.

Through this project, students developed a deeper awareness of themselves as learners and leaders whose developing skills and expertise merit wider attention. Ultimately, the project shined a bright light on the knowledge assets and insights that students have – particularly those whose educational journeys and lived experiences are informed by intersectionality – and how that knowledge can inform if not drive school improvement efforts.

What is Student-Led Action Research?​

Youth-Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based in social justice principles in which young people are trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities and the institutions intended to serve them.

  • The students will develop their sense of themselves as learners who have the skills to investigate issues that are relevant to them and critical to their development
  • The mentors will learn to engage in reciprocal learning with their mentees and will develop the skills to guide the student researchers to a successful outcome
  • The project will further enrich the body of knowledge being developed by the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative
The original project design calls for a blended approach to engagement, combining both in-person and virtual modalities. Due to the unprecedented pandemic that deeply affected both home, school and work spheres, the project quickly pivoted to virtual meetings to prioritize the health and safety of our researchers, partners and stakeholders.   The following are major project touchpoints:
  • Project Launch: It was integral to us to build community. At the launch, we got to know the youth researchers, facilitated self and group reflection on learning journeys, provided the project overview and set community norms and boundaries. 
  • Whole-Group Convenings: When we all got together, we made sure to facilitate mutual check-ins and community building. We provided research methods training and focused support on problems youth researchers encountered. We gathered feedback on program components as we went. 
  • Engagement with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative: We leveraged our human resources in the form of adult researchersThe YARIs met with a broader community of researchers, shared their research and learning journeys and were able to voice their problems of practice and ask for advice. 
  • Whole-Group Check-ins: For quick but important check-ins, we continued to build community and focused support and training on specific project stages. We gathered ongoing feedback during these sessions. 
  • Mentor-Mentee Touchpoints: The most important support system for YARIs came from their relationships and ongoing communications with their mentors. Twice a month, the mentors checked in and acted as a liaison between the YARIs and additional support staff. 
  • Workshops on Universal Design for Learning (UDL): It was important that this project was rooted in universal design principles. We wanted to make sure our project was accessible, inclusive and engaging. We held two virtual training sessions on UDL fundamentals and approaches for project support staff and partners, and a two-session virtual workshop on self-identity and project approach for the youth researchers. 
  • The  Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education (CYCLE) serves as the main research partner that will manage local logistics and oversight. This organization has deeply rooted partnerships in the community to build collective power and fight for policies and practices that create equitable opportunities and just outcomes for all students.
  • The Met High School  (Metropolitan  Regional Career  and Technical Center) is an innovative local public institution where every student  has an individualized learning plan built around that child’s needs and interests, through core partnerships between learners, Met advisors, parents and mentors. The Met High School will be the source of the upcoming cohort of youth researchers.
  • The  Youth Development Program at Rhode Island College (YDEV@RIC) prepares professional youth workers for careers with young people in out-of-classroom settings. YDEV@RIC will be the source of mentors and will provide mentor training through a graduate course curriculum that will include the following content areas: theoretical framing, mentoring approaches and overview of the research process and practice.
  • CAST is an education research and development organization that pursues expanded learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning. CAST will provide focused training on UDL for the youth researchers and project support partners/staff.

The following are the scaffolds provided to the youth researchers as they pursued their main research questions:

  • Project Task 1 Refining the Research Question: We helped the youth researchers consider their interests and passions so they could narrow it down into a question they could pursue.
  • Project Task 2 – Planning the Literature Review: Youth researchers found sources that showed what others have thought or discovered about your topic.
  • Project Task 3 – Completing the Literature Review: Youth researchers performed a thorough literature review for their topic.
  • Project Task 4 – Planning Data Gathering Sources: Youth researchers chose the sources of their data (“study sample”) that helped them answer their research question.
  • Project Task 5 – Planning and Describing Data Gathering: Youth researchers planned and described their data gathering, including the how, what, when and where of their research activities.
  • Project Task 6  Making Sense of the Data Collected: Youth researchers identified themes, patterns and connections in the data they collected, and began generating findings and insights that answered their research question.
  • Project Task 7 – Generating Findings and Youth researchers generated the findings that answered their research question and provided evidence from the data they collected that supported their interpretations. They began telling a story about the data.
  • Project Task 8 – Effectively Sharing Your Research Findings and Conclusion: Youth researchers made plans on how to share their research findings and conclusions of the project to their chosen audiences.

For youth

  • Youth-led research can be an effective and empowering way for students to pursue questions about their education, from the specific perspective of their lived experiences and learning journeys. This project provides an authentic opportunity to exercise agency and have ownership of the work.
  • Pursuing their own research design can help them further develop self-efficacy and resilience, facing barriers and learning how to overcome them by leveraging resources available to them.
  • Collaborating with another student and a mentor will teach them valuable lessons on teamwork, how to bring their full selves into achieving an objective and to gain a deep appreciation for the unique assets and perspective that every individual brings.

For educators

  • Youth-led research can be a powerful pedagogical tool that can help inspire students to study the topics and concerns that keep them up at night. It also provides them an avenue to contribute to their communities and spheres of influence in a meaningful way.
  • When adults center and elevate student voices, assets and lived experiences in their research or school projects, it can help build stronger relationships between adults and youth and bridge gaps in understanding. It can be an effective way of establishing and sustaining a truly culturally-responsive education.
  • This project would not have been as positive of an experience for youth researchers had it not included robust program support and intentionally-designed scaffolds for students with learning differences. So, if others are trying this in their schools, organizations and/or classrooms, it will be important to plan scaffolds and differentiated supports for students.

For partners

  • Youth-led research can help build capability in collaborating on student-centered programs with robust support structures.
  • This deeply collaborative program model can provide insights on innovative ways to amplify student-centered voices and stories.
  • Partnerships among diverse stakeholders can help deepen understanding of and calibrate approaches to support students both in and outside the classrooms.

For district leaders

  • Youth-led research can help build and establish the theory of action and evidence base for prioritizing and pursuing personalized, competency-based and culturally-responsive education.

Funding for this study provided by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Oak Foundation.

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