For three decades, Gayla Margolin has painstakingly researched family conflict, producing valuable data that policymakers can use to curtail domestic violence.
At this stage in her meritorious career, one might expect Margolin to slow down – maybe pursue an unfulfilled dream. Say, hypothetically, learning Mandarin or flying a helicopter.
Not Margolin. The professor of psychology at USC College is taking her research a giant step further. She wants her studies to have a direct impact on the lives of youths.
Benefiting children and teens in local neighborhoods, Margolin and a small group of like-minded professors have established the USC Center for Urban Youth.
“We could all continue to do our research and be successful, but we felt that we wanted our legacies to be bigger in some way,” she said of the center’s steering committee.
For several years, groups of faculty throughout campus had discussed the possibility of establishing an urban youth center. Last year, the possibility turned into reality when the College called for the formation of interdisciplinary centers.
“Gayla Margolin took the lead in responding to that call,” said Margaret Gatz, professor and chair of psychology, the new center’s home department. “She’s brought together people from across campus committed to taking a scientific, research-based approach to improving the welfare of kids.”
Gatz is a member of the steering committee, which includes other professors from the College, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the USC Rossier School of Education, the USC School of Social Work, the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Gould School of Law.
Directed by Margolin, the center is devoted to improving the lives of urban youths in myriad ways – from assessing and treating learning and behavioral problems to counseling victims of violence and addressing obesity.
Working with local Inner City Education Foundation public schools, USC professors and students will conduct and implement research based on the most pressing needs.
“We want to make an impact on youth,” Margolin said. “And we want those youths to be from our own urban community.”
The group is collaborating with area charter schools, which had never before joined forces with USC.
“There have been other universities that have wanted to conduct studies at our schools,” said Robert Schwartz, chief academic officer of the Inner City Foundation. “What made USC different is that instead of bringing in their research, they asked what we needed first.”
He called it an ideal coupling.
“USC is a major part of the community where our students live,” he said. “Meeting students in their own community who’ve made it to USC can be a very powerful motivator.”
Margolin added that those involved in the project share a desire to help inner-city youths.
“That was part of the glue that brought us all together,” she said. “But everyone has a different reason for studying children.”
Frank Manis, professor of psychology at the College, specializes in early literacy. His research focuses on children and adults with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and children learning a second language.
Manis plans to train his students to give and evaluate language and reading assessment tests to children at the charter schools.
Although the charter schools implement statewide standardized testing, assessments throughout an academic year would enable teachers to better monitor student progress.
He expects that he and his students may conduct and implement other translational research at the schools, but won’t know the exact topics until more meetings with charter school teachers, administrators, and parents and their children.
“We don’t just want to impose our research agenda on the schools,” Manis said. “We’re interested in coming up with joint ventures that blend our research expertise with the schools’ needs.”
Jo Ann Farver, associate professor of psychology, said the center builds on USC’s mission to create a new urban paradigm.
“Our campus is uniquely positioned to do so,” said Farver, a steering committee member specializing in cross-cultural developmental psychology.
“And our group provides a truly interdisciplinary perspective because we each come with different expertise about children and families. This will allow us to chip away at the problems associated with inner-city living from all angles.”
Shri Narayanan, an engineer, and Marian Williams, a clinical psychologist, are tackling the problems through technology. Narayanan and Williams met through the center and are part of a team exploring the role interactive technologies may have on assisting children with autism.
Narayanan is the Andrew Viterbi Professor of Engineering at USC Viterbi. Williams is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Keck School and the director of the CHILD Center at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. When Williams was a Ph.D. student at the College, Margolin was on her dissertation committee.
Holding joint appointments in linguistics, psychology and computer science, Narayanan said interactive computer technologies could use voice recognition, computer vision and even physiological information processing to collect data on students’ speech and actions as well as their emotional states. For instance, when a child is confused, a teacher could intervene.
Video games could be used to help teach literacy in math and science. Or interactive technologies may address pediatric obesity by monitoring a child’s physical activities and physiological state, then communicating healthy messages and advice.
“These things are not fantasies anymore; these technologies are happening in the broader community,” Narayanan said. “Wireless has been very powerful for social communication. A similar transformative effect can be envisioned for the domains close to the heart of the Center for Urban Youth.”
Williams, who also works with children with mental and emotional problems, expects to address such concerns in the charter schools.
“Some kids come from families with abuse issues, with poverty issues, with gun violence in their neighborhoods,” Williams said. “Yet with everything they’ve been through, they’re expected to focus on education. We’ll be assessing the mental health needs of a child who may have serious issues to overcome.”
Stan Huey Jr., associate professor of psychology and of American studies and ethnicity, is excited about the research and service possibilities.
Huey’s research focuses on interventions for severely delinquent youth. He has directed studies on interventions for gang members, suicidal youths and those with anti-social behavior.
“We all bring different things to the table,” Huey said. “But we share the same goal of working with real-world problems to do what we can to solve them.”