Students in Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP)
Oct 27, 2022
Marisa LaFalce
In Human Centered Design

Ithaca moms know that the baby swing at the Auburn Street Park is one of the best in town because it’s high enough to safely push your child without aggravating your back. But what happens when those infants and toddlers become teens? What does the park have to offer them?

Ithaca-area teens participating in the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) spent two weekends this fall identifying opportunities and solutions for making three City of Ithaca parks, located at Auburn, Thompson and Wood Streets, more accessible for older youth and young adults.

Cornell’s STEP mission is to support students as they prepare for college and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). STEP aims to increase the number of marginalized students represented in these career fields by providing opportunities to explore STEM-related careers and prepare for the college admissions process. The program is funded by the New York State Education Department and hosted at Cornell University.

Julia Jaffe, a Ph.D. student studying human behavior and design in the Department of Human Centered Design (HCD) led the workshop with help from other graduate research assistants in the department. After a brief family orientation, students spent the first Saturday learning how to conduct an environmental audit in order to evaluate local parks. The students documented what they did and didn’t like through Photovoice—a photography-based methodology that facilitates deeper reflection of the emotions, experiences and reasoning behind what makes something positive or negative in an environment.

The following week, the student researchers shared their Photovoice reflections and listened to what other youth researchers were identifying and experiencing in the environments as part of a day-long workshop at Cornell. After sharing, students were given materials and prompts to help them envision their ideal outdoor space. They shared their ideas through schematics, paintings and models. They also explored specific elements that could be integrated into the outdoor community spaces. “We utilized art in lieu of more formal focus groups and interviews. We believe that tapping alternative, more creative knowledges can amplify youth voice and engender richer insights while fostering positive youth development outcomes such as agency, self-efficacy, identity and positive growth,” said Jaffe.

Jaffe is advised by Janet Loebach, the Evalyn Edwards Milman assistant professor and director of the Designing Environments with|for Children & Adolescents (DECA) lab. Loebach is known for her expertise in both children’s geographies and positive youth development. She has designed frameworks for engaging youth in the design process to create spaces that are both welcoming and impactful.

“The STEP program were amazing partners for this project. They recruited (and work with) youth in Ithaca who are engaged and passionate about learning and improving their community. It was fun to be with them, and we were impressed with their grasp of the concepts and insights regarding outdoor spaces along with their specific communities' needs. The research team looks forward to future iterations,” said Jaffe.

The fall workshops are part of the first-phase of a multi-year project, led by Loebach, to develop a participatory, youth-engaged, environmental assessment toolkit. Project goals are to effectively engage youth in evaluating community outdoor spaces—primarily recreational and green spaces—to promote inclusive, youth-friendly environments and to support positive youth development. Loebach, who focuses on working both with and for youth hopes to engage children and young adults across New York State in the process by project’s end.

Photo information: STEP participants use art to share ideas in lieu of more traditional models (e.g. focus groups) because researchers find that creative expression better amplifies youth voices. Photo by Simon Wheeler.